How Art Can Help Those With Dementia and Their Caregivers

As a dementia caregiver navigating the increasingly challenging journey of dementia with my mum. I’ve discovered an unexpected ally in the battle against it. How art can help those with dementia isn’t a new concept, but it is to us as it wasn’t part of our lives before.

In this blog post, I’ll share how integrating art into our daily routine has helped mum and talk of the benefits of art during the different stages of dementia.

Our Art Journey

It all started for us with simple colouring books and using magic colouring books where you brush water on a piece of white card and a picture magically appears (like these Relish Aquapaints packs or you can buy cheaper options in bargain stores!).

My respite carer (a previous school teacher) started to adapt items to make arts & crafts from objects around the house. And now mum is making simple art pieces using different styles and methods. You can see a selection below.

Art like music and dance can open a world of creativity, self expression, joy, emotions and much more, so why not include it in your loved one’s daily lives? It’s not about what’s produced, it’s about the moments, sense of accomplishment, and joy of expressing themselves.

The key thing with any art project is to keep at a level suitable for adults, don’t dumb it down per se, adapt it, make it fun and positive reinforcement and encouragement definitely helped mum as she initially dismissed it as childish. Mum is in the mid to late stage and has mobility issues, so hand coordination is difficult for her. Here’s mum attempting marbling technique.

Don’t worry about the end product the important part is satisfaction that mum gets from making it herself, don’t do it for them, help, assist, especially in our case as mum only uses one hand so it’s difficult for her to pick things up. We’ve a fridge full of colouring book pages (just rip them out of the book to make it easier to access, paint and avoid bleed through) and now mum has become more confident in working with different forms of art, she’s started to use non toxic paints to create her own art work.

I will say that it isn’t safe for mum to be left alone with felt tip pens, glue, paste, paints as everything goes directly into her mouth. So be careful with your loved ones and ensure that you remain with them.

Early (Mild) Stages of Dementia

In the early stages, introducing new arts experiences activates and potentially strengthens neural pathways as the brain forms new connections. Benefits include

  1. Activities like drawing, painting, or crafting can help maintain cognitive function by encouraging problem-solving, decision-making, and creative thinking. This mental engagement may even help slow down the progression of cognitive decline. Something as simple as taking a free-form painting class encourages those with mild dementia to problem solve, make decisions, and visualise output.
  2. It provide a meaningful, engaging activity that enables self-expression and creativity at a time when a person may become frustrated with declining verbal skills.
  3. Completing artwork often gives a valuable sense of accomplishment, pride and self-confidence. Producing something meaningful boosts mood and wellbeing.
  4. Sharing artwork with loved ones helps maintain social bonds and gives opportunities for positive interaction. Talking about art and the creative process brings people together emotionally and it’s a lot fun time together rather task related work that most dementia caregivers have to balance in during the day.

Simple art projects can calm anxiety and help lift the mood for those with early-stage dementia by shifting focus away from frustrations.

Creative pursuits encourage the brain to form new connections, improving cognition and self-expression.

Middle (Moderate) Stage of Dementia

Apathy and attention difficulties increase for those with moderate dementia. But art activities can contain novel sights, textures and sounds that target senses and provide needed mental stimulation. If you’re able to join a class, then seeing others engaged often can invigorate interest in their own art projects or open conversation about the art pieces.

Looking at art often triggers emotional memories and reminds those with mid-stage dementia of who they are. There are a lot of benefits associated with it

  1. Art can serve as a tool for reminiscence and memory recall. Creating art based on experiences or familiar subjects can trigger memories and encourage storytelling, helping to maintain a connection with past events and personal history.
  2. The act of creating art can be therapeutic, offering a way to express emotions and reduce stress or anxiety
  3. Drawing, painting, and other hands-on activities can support fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, beneficial in maintaining mobility and manual dexterity.
  4. Participating in group art activities or classes can provide social interaction and help reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness, especially important where broader interactions may have dropped away. Reality is that in cases, some people do find it difficult to interact with even family members with dementia and it can be too easy to get isolated. Using arts and crafts as entry point into meeting others is a great way to restore social interactions.

Late (Advanced) Stage of Dementia

In the later stages, a person with dementia may have limited ways to communicate depending on the type of dementia they have. As verbal communication diminishes, finding new ways to connect becomes crucial. In mum’s case, wording is confused, and her agitation increases as the day progresses, but bringing out her art tools helps bring her comfort, reduces her anxiety and the sensory stimulation helps distract her from repetitive or distressing behaviours.

  1. Art activities can have a soothing and calming effect. The act of engaging with art, whether it’s through viewing, touching, or making, can reduce agitation and provide a sense of peace and relaxation.
  2. Textured papers can be soothing, using pastes, adding in scented materials, scrunches of fabric, touching different brushes all help create simple tactile stimulation that promotes a sense of calm, interest and purpose.
  3. Sitting together over a simple coloring activity or dabbing of paints is a shared activity that doesn’t rely on verbal communication and can strengthen bonds in the later stages of dementia.
  4. And if you can’t create anything or they are not in the mood to do something that day, then it could be just looking at art books or discussing art already created or viewing art through virtual art gallery tours.

Conclusion

Dementia caregivers can adapt art in dementia care to meet the needs of individuals at different stages of dementia. Not everything will work, but keep trying, different things that connect for your loved one, and if it doesn’t work that day, then try another day.

Join a workshop, class or dementia specific groups to improve engagement, improve social interactions and experiment to try new art forms.

Art can be more than a pastime; it’s a tool for communication, spark memories, and be a source of comfort both for your loved one and for you as a dementia caregiver.

I hope art creativity does the same for your loved ones. I’ll be sharing a list of art activities for each stage of dementia in the next few days, so keep an eye out for these post your inboxes!