They say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What a powerful picture that must be! I mean, think about that…on its very best days, your brain can’t find the words to describe certain emotions. And in a single instant, a perfectly captured picture can transport you back to a loved one laughing, a single touch, or a moment of excruciating loss.
If a picture can do this on your brain’s best days, what can it do for you on your worst days?
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
The year was 2017. I was well equipped to begin my brand-new art education job as an instructor for Awakening Minds Art, a small, grassroots nonprofit based in Findlay, Ohio. But the worlds of special needs, dementia, and whatever the heck a small, grassroots nonprofit is…now those were total mysteries to me...
What I’ve found over the last 5 years is that I was missing out by not interacting with whole populations of people, art is truly magical, and helping people see the value of giving—their time, money, love— feels really, really good.
So, here’s my blogging beginning—moving forward, I’ll share some of my research, stories, and reflections. There’ll be some art education, some advocacy, some snippets of what it looks like to work in the nonprofit sector, and definitely some shameless plugs for what we do at Awakening Minds Art!
Let’s start with what we’re actually doing at Awakening Minds Art in Findlay Ohio, and how we’re different from the typical art studio.
The mission of Awakening Minds Art (AMA) is to provide therapeutic and educational visual arts programs for all ages and abilities.
That means we do art education, we do community projects, we work with special needs, typical needs; we have art classes for toddlers, art for kids, art for seniors; we work with memory care; we help with stress-relief, and we also help with motor skills and we also help with behaviors, and we also help with language and social skills and feeling a sense of community and..and..and…
As you can imagine, when I began writing grants and talking to the community about AMA, I struggled REAL HARD with how to communicate what AMA is all about. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Awakening Minds Art believes that art can benefit EVERYONE, and we believe it should be accessible to everyone, too! We’re a lifespan organization working hard to provide visual arts programming to as many people as we can. – How’s my elevator speech so far?
Now, we all know art education—that fun class in grade school where you learn how to cut and paste and draw. And there are plenty of reasons why art education is critical for development (don’t worry, I’ll get to those in the future) But first, let’s talk about that other word in our mission statement AND the main reason we differ from the typical art class…
What’s that you say? Art Therapy? Nope. No one at AMA is a licensed art therapist (and we don’t need to be). Art therapy versus therapeutic art: Just like in art therapy, stress-relief, confidence boosts, positive socialization, and being provided a safe environment to voice our emotions go hand-in-hand with therapeutic artmaking, but we’re also focused on brain and physical development.
Basically, therapeutic art means we take something as FUN as art and incorporate challenges based on the unique goals of each individual student. Art techniques, like painting, build non-art-related skills that aid in the success of the individual outside of the art studio! Students get the typical benefits of art while getting individual attention for the things that matter the most to them and their families in day-to-day life.
Some examples of therapeutic elements:
Therapeutic art is a wonderful accompaniment to other therapies and plans. It assists and advances
When I first began watching the other instructors at Awakening Minds Art work with their one-on-one, therapeutic students, I was particularly surprised to see how creativity often takes a second place to the process of painting. The student usually chooses the painting’s inspiration and makes some independent decisions along the way (like color choices), but the goal of the overall program is not to make an original masterpiece. It’s not even to make something pretty in the end! Process is King. And for some of the people who we work with, just practicing holding onto a paintbrush, even if it requires assistance, is the accomplishment that matters.
Sometimes it’s hard to convince someone, especially an elderly person who has lost abilities, that their work is worth celebrating. But therapeutic art celebrates victories, no matter how small, and at the very least, we’re left with an interesting mix of colors, an experience among friends, and time spent with an active brain and active muscles. After all, movement inspires movement!
Who knows what spreading a little paint around a page might inspire next!