Dementia is such a deeply inward journey, I think patients can use art as a way of connecting with people and recognizing the ‘something’ different or new that is taking place in their minds.
Lynda Weston lost her mother to Alzheimer’s 20 years ago. She later became the chaplain at a care facility, created a support group for caregivers, Help For Dementia Care, and now develops multimedia videos for people with dementia.
My mother, Audrey, passed away from Alzheimer’s over 20 years ago at a time when my own life was in chaos. I was in no position to help or support her, but was blessed with amazing siblings and a father who walked with her to the end. In the process of putting myself back together after my mother’s diagnosis, I returned to university at age 50 and emerged six years later with a degree in divinity and became a chaplain. For almost thirteen years, I worked as the spiritual care coordinator in a long-term care facility with a team of professional caregivers. In this position, I took care of residents, family members and staff.
I learned many things while working there: each type of dementia is as individual as the person who has the disease, silliness and laughter are still a frequent part of life, we never lose the need to help one another or to feel as if we have a purpose, we never stop responding to a smile and we never forget those we love. Although the mind may falter, our memory is not just in our minds; it is safely stored away in our hands, our sense of smell and in places we cannot see or name.
With a background in the arts, I searched for a way to bring creativity to the lives of residents. Painting, writing, making music, sculpture, dancing and photography are all meaning-making activities. Dementia is such a deeply inward journey, I think patients can use art as a way of connecting with people and recognizing the ‘something’ different or new that is taking place in their minds. It also gives them something positive to focus on. As meditation and mindfulness practice have shown, the ability to focus on one act gives our minds ‘breathing space.’ The initial reactions to diagnosis—often anxiety, depression and panic—can be alleviated by this kind of focusing practice.
Try giving someone with dementia a camera to take pictures and understand how he or she sees the world. We did this practice with residents, many of whom were in wheelchairs, and we got a totally different perspective on their lives. The patients also felt more heard and had fun in the process in a tables-turned kind of way. These practices also add sensory stimulation. Also, in my experience, nothing changes mood faster than music. It was as effective for the staff as it was for residents. Finding ways to connect with people and finding people open to any means of connection, I believe, is key to healing.