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Expressive art therapy has long been used by art therapists to explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, create self-awareness, foster social skills, reduce anxiety, improve orientation, and increase self-esteem. How? By way of using artistic media and the creative process.

Art as therapy began in the 1970s at the Leslie College Graduate School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and includes art, music, drama, and dance. As part of a treatment strategy for a range of mental health conditions, the benefits of expressive art therapy began to be integrated into senior care.

What is Expressive Art Therapy?

Art therapy is based on the idea that the “creative” right side of our brain is put to work, processes the information, and then sends those outcomes to the “academic” left side of our brain which deals with logic, language, writing and memory. Thus, expressive art therapy benefits memory care patients, including those living with the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia in numerous ways.

The Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy

The pure act of the creative arts sets the stage for communication and shared experiences. Whether it’s painting or poetry, dance or storytelling, movement, or music, taking part in the process invokes joy within. It is a way for seniors to honour their life stories and can serve to restore their sense of self either by re-discovering a past passion or discovering a new one. Expressive arts also show them they are still capable of creating something beautiful and contributing to the world around them, no matter their age.

Taking part in art therapy can:

  • Boost social interaction
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Provide meaningful stimulation
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Decrease the need for antipsychotic pharmaceuticals

With every upside, there is inevitably a perceived down, which in the case of expressive art therapy is that the positive results are inextricable. The positive reactions and healing achieved could be from the creative process itself, or the positive interactions with the art therapist and others involved. It is also possible for the emotions that arise during the process, likely unresolved, can cause an increase in anxiety or emotional discomfort.

Does Expressive Arts Therapy Help Memory?

According to “Advances in art therapy for patients with dementia”, a review article from the Department of Nursing, Hangzhou Normal University School of Medicine, the benefits and treatment goals of art therapy for those living with dementia is that:

“The creation of art stimulates the temporal lobe, which affects object recognition and accurate expression using language, and the parietal lobe, which perceives the spatial position of objects and controls fine motor functions of the hand. Additionally, art therapy provides an effective way to train patients in the capacities of language and fine motor movement of the hand, in which the hand-brain interaction helps maintain and develop motor skills and coordination and improves the perception by the brain of colour, shape, space, proportion, etc.”

So, expressive art therapy helps the brain, memory and fine motor skills, in addition to being a non-verbal outlet through which to express emotions. Having that kind of outlet for someone with dementia can make a world of difference in improving quality of life.

The Bottom Line

World Health Organization reports that more than 55 million people worldwide live with dementia, with 10 million new cases every year. The physical, psychological, social and economic effects of this cognitive deterioration don’t just impact the people living with it, but their caregivers and families as well.

Programs such as Verve’s Meet Me at the MoMA and Java Music Club are intended to bring expressive art therapy into our communities across Canada, enriching the lives of our residents on a daily basis. Museum, gallery visits and live entertainment shows are also organized into our communities to encourage socialization — because we firmly believe that everything is better when done together.

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