People with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia experience memory loss and a progressive loss of cognitive abilities affecting all aspects of their lives. As an Awakening Minds Art instructor, I’ve painted with many residents in memory care facilities, and I can honestly say that a picture is worth much more than just a thousand words.
How does art affect the brain?
Creating and looking at art is beneficial to everyone, no matter your age or ability, but for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, art affects parts of the brain that most need exercising. Through picture-looking, people can reminisce and reflect on their lives. Creating art, especially with others, enhances well-being, social participation, language retrieval, and opportunities for self-expression and self-purpose.
What does Dopamine do for the brain?
In my own experience working in senior living facilities and memory care units, residents paint using detailed brushwork and long, sweeping brushstrokes to not only exercise fine and gross motor skills (improving muscle memory and function) but also to boost their brain’s ability to produce dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain which provides feelings of pleasure and reinforces the motivation to move, learn, and focus. It is produced by the thought of movement. In other words, thinking about moving motivates us to move—and to keep moving! The use of color, pleasing images, and an encouraging instructor all inspire a resident to move, which in turn, keeps them working, keeps them attentive, and keeps them happy.
Creativity lives on!
According to Barbara Bagan, PhD, ATR-BC, “Neurological research shows that making art can improve cognitive functions by producing both new neural pathways and thicker, stronger dendrites…Making art or even viewing art causes the brain to continue to reshape, adapt, and restructure, thus expanding the potential to increase brain reserve capacity.” This is true for everyone, no matter your age or ability.
Although the brain will unavoidably age, creativity doesn’t necessarily have to. Behavioral neurologist, Bruce Miller, MD, believes “the aging brain responds well to art by allowing the brain’s two hemispheres to work more in tandem. This ability to use one’s creativity throughout a lifetime and the impact of crystallized intelligence gained from the years of accumulated knowledge and life experiences, help to cultivate the aging, creative brain.”
To keep those two hemispheres of the brain communicating, as Miller mentions, I have my painters cross the midline while they’re filling in the background of a picture. This means, we use long, sweeping brushstrokes that cross from the left side to the right, and right back to the left (of the paper AND the body). This keeps both sides of the body working together, promoting coordination and communication with left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Art triggers memories
In John Ziesel’s book, I’m Still Here (2009), he argues that “Alzheimer’s does not take away memory, rather it is the part of the brain that gives you access to the memory that is damaged.” Art helps activate the brain and open doors Alzheimer’s seemingly closed. As Zeisel writes, “It’s as if you put the memories in the glove compartment and lost the key, and art unlocked it” (Zeisel, as cited in Hathorn, 2013).
Whoa…I love that quote. I can’t tell you how many times someone who seems totally bewildered, totally lost, totally incapable, suddenly is speaking paragraphs about their life in childhood or younger adulthood after or during an art class. I’ve had family members present who are absolutely baffled by the sudden clarity; I remember one saying, “YES, Dad! Everything he just told you is totally true! I can’t believe he just told you all that.”
Here's the thing, Alzheimer’s is not a curable disease. The people I work with are not going to be cured by art, and frankly, I don’t see the residents often enough to know how far my endeavors reach beyond the hour session, but the stacks of qualitative evidence that I have in my brain could write books to support how absolutely magical artmaking and art-looking is. I will end this post with a few of my favorite stories from my experiences.
I’d seen Dorothy shuffling through the halls many times, talking to people only she could see. It was months before I had the chance to paint with her. I helped her into a chair and a nurse skeptically told me she couldn’t see well. I held the painting example close to her and described it. Dorothy’s face lit up. She exclaimed about the blues and purples! Dorothy needed a lot of hand-over-hand attention to complete her painting, but she completed it, and it was hers. For someone who I had never seen interact with other people, she answered my questions, laughed at other people’s comments, and seemed particularly intrigued by the man across from her whistling. Colors and images recalled memories and stories that she shared, and at the end, she was able to title her artwork. The pride and confidence that Dorothy exuded that day carried over to every other person in that painting session!
In another memory care facility, Carol is someone I’d painted with dozens of times, and I’d gotten the chance to notice and learn things about her through our sessions. She is quiet, but extremely positive; she is slow to comprehend, but typically understands and follows through on directions in her own time; and she always adds her own creative twists on some genuinely beautiful paintings.
The last time I worked with her, she was very tired. She fell asleep several times during the session and had trouble following directions. I directed the group to fill in the whole paper’s background with long side-to-side brushstrokes, but Carol focused on one small area and brushed the paint in small swirls. Even as I guided her hand back and forth across the paper, I could tell she was unable or unwilling to make this bilateral motion. Rather than finishing the painting for her, I let her go.
It took Carol almost the entire hour session to finish the background. As other residents finished a clover patch with flowers, Carol looked down at her paper and said, “It looks like a pond!” I responded, “Yes! Should we add some waterlilies to your pond?” She loved the idea! She gave the painting an entire backstory with ducks and waterlilies, and she recalled a memory about a time she visited a pond with ducks. This storytelling was a significant aspect of our painting session. She ended the class feeling proud and accomplished for a painting SHE did all on her own and for the title and backstory that allowed her to be creative and reminiscent.
Occasionally, I have the wonderful opportunity to meet residents’ families and other caregivers. It is fulfilling to know that art not only affects the artists, but also the people closest to them.
I first met Elsie at a memory care unit for Alzheimer’s and dementia. I remember her as a sweet and soft-spoken woman who was excited to paint and energized by her accomplishments. My favorite thing about painting with Elsie was the end of the session when I’d ask her if she liked her painting. Her face would light up, and she’d exclaim, “I think it’s pretty good!” And she’d title her painting something about how beautiful or peaceful or great it was.
Even though Elsie needed a lot of extra help throughout the process, her pride in the finished product was heartwarming and contagious!
Unfortunately, as time went on, Elsie painted with me less and less, and like many people with that awful disease, she was progressively more confused, frustrated, and angry.
One day, while I was there, Elsie chose not to paint, but sat nearby throughout the session. As I was cleaning up afterwards, I noticed her daughter had come to visit. I knew Elsie’s daughters because they’d visited many times in the past, sometimes sitting with her as she painted and giving her genuine praise and using the opportunity to start conversations with their mom.
Now, it just so happened that Elsie had painted during the previous week’s session, and I took her finished piece over to them. I said hello, and said, “Elsie, I wanted to bring this over to show you. This is the painting you did last week. You painted a beautiful beach. Do you love it?” Her eyes lit up as they once regularly did. She said, “Oh, yes!” I said, “I thought you might like to share this painting with your daughter because you named it North Carolina Beach, and you said your family used to vacation there.”
At this point, I said goodbye and walked away. I can only speculate what came next.
But what I know is, Elsie’s family now has another cherished artwork to keep. And I can be pretty sure that Elsie’s daughter complimented her mom, and her mom believed her. That feels good to anyone! Her daughter also had an opportunity to comment on the painting’s colors and brushstrokes and reminisce about past family vacations. Whether they ever went to North Carolina or not—there’s a story there for them to share. Those comments and conversations may have given way to moments of clarity for Elsie.
Art has the ability to provide countless physical and developmental benefits, and it has the ability to open neural pathways in the brain, making us happy and motivating us to move and think and remember! If you’d like to read more about the art I do at Awakening Minds Art, read my first blog post here and visit our website!
 “Understanding Alzheimer’s and dementia.” Alzheimer’s Association. Accessed May 11, 2022. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers
"Dopamine." Psychology Today. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine.
 Bagan, Barbara. “Aging: What's Art Got to Do with It?” Today's Geriatric Medicine, Great Valley Publishing, https://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/news/ex_082809_03.shtml.
 Hathorn, K. (2013). The role of visual art in improving quality-of-life related outcomes ... Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_084192.pdf