Updated: Sep 1, 2021
If you have been reading my blog for a while now, you will know that art gives opportunity for non-verbal expression. As the brain slowly rots amongst those who have been unfortunate enough to have a debilitating onset of dementia, they can show signs of agitation, restlessness, have profound confusion to time, and place, and have anxiety and depression. Their ability to participate in group activities also diminishes as they lose the capacity to remember how to do a task.
So, I ask you... How can a person with advanced dementia, successfully participate in art? and, if they don't even know what's going on, then what is the benefit?
Art in aged care is not about putting paint on the canvas. Its not even about making the painting...
In a former life, (pre-baby) I was a nurse in Aged Care and worked across many dementia wards. Early on in my career, I found myself observing residents with advanced dementia, restricted to their princess chairs, unable to move. They would be smiling as they sat at the end of the table watching the lifestyle coordinator organise craft activities for the residents. I often wondered 'what's in it for them?' As my career progressed, I would later understand that art goes beyond being able to put paint on a canvas. Art can reach people of all intellectual abilities, because, art is about inclusion. They can participate in whatever way they are physically or mentally capable of and, if they have a sense of value and participation - then its a win.
To understand how people can participate, we should not be looking at whether or not they can put paint on the canvas, but look at how they can engage in the activity and feel valued during the process.
Setting them up for success...
The Alzheimer's Association says that diversional therapy is about 'creating good moments, good hours and good days'. We want to make sure the experience is as enjoyable as possible and we also want to avoid embarrassing our participants. So it is imperative, to first understand two things about the person before even starting the art session:
What are their physical limitations? Make sure you are acutely aware of any physical disabilities that may be limiting the person from participating to ensure the environment enhances their experience rather than hinders it.
Sight problems: Ask if they need their glasses on, ensure their glasses are clean. Ensure the room is well lit. Remove any clutter from the floor. Make the craft objects clearly different colours and labelled with clear writing.
Hearing Problems: Ask if they use any hearing aids. Ensure they are working and insitu. Ensure that background noise is kept to a minimum. Whilst it may seem a nice idea to be playing background noise, it can be limiting communication for the hearing impaired and may be distracting and confusing for those with dementia.
Mobility aids: Check their mobility aids are within reach and are also not distracting to the person sitting next to them if you are in a group setting.
Pain: This may sound odd if you are unfamiliar to the aged care setting, but pain is a big one. It is often the precursor to aggressive behavior and creating a barrier to the person engaging in the activity. If you can get the pain sorted prior to starting the activity, chances are, you will have a much more enjoyable time for everyone involved.
Range of movement: Remember the elderly can be prone to having arthritic conditions that make the joints stiff and sore to move, this can hinder their ability to hold a paint brush or cut with scissors. There are some great adaptive products you can buy to make holding things easier.
Where are they at mentally? A really smart, old school nurse once told me in order to better understand dementia, imagine you are standing on a road. In front of you is your future age and each step behind you is your past. Now, turn around and walk to the past; with each step you go, you revert back a year in age. That is dementia. So, you really want to understand at where they are at cognitively as to know what level of instruction will be best received. The last thing you want is to either insult the person by speaking to basic, or, do the opposite and provide too complex instruction that will not be understood, and in turn embarrass the person. Work your way down the list and think about which communication style the person might need.
Can they hold a conversation?,
Do they need one sentence instructions?,
Do they need basic language and once sentence?
Do they need picture cards for language interpretation? Have they reverted back to their native tongue?
Do they need just one word and a hand gesture?,
Do they need picture cards showing them them what they need to do?
Do they need to be helping by picking colours, materials etc?
Do they need to be just feeling part of the group by sitting with everyone?
Consider a variety of creative activities.
Now comes the fun part... Thinking of a variety of creative activities that everyone can enjoy. Creating an art afternoon for people with dementia requires lateral thinking.
Remember earlier in the piece I mentioned that dementia care is about creating good moments?
Well, here's a hot tip. Find a way to make the art session meaningful to each person individually.
Chatting with family members is a great starting point to finding out a bit about their history.
Some great things to find out are:
What they did for a living - Were they a farmer? Can you create an art session around the theme of farm machinery? What type of materials can you include in the sculpture to bring that person back into a time when they worked on the farm? Inducing these memories through art will greatly deepen the experience for the person by bringing a sense of personal meaning.
Where did they grow up? Are there any locations of significance to them - Are there any natural wildlife or flower / tress / lookouts that are significant to that area? What is the are known for? You might be able to do an art lesson or painting session teaching the residents how to draw an element from that location.
Its about stepping them back to a time for a moment that made them happy.
What If you need a hand at creating an art afternoon, juts read on to get access to some great step by step drawing tutorials. They're really good in the sense that you do not need to be a master artist to be able to draw the pictures. The step by step guides break down the process into really simple steps and the videos will show you how its done. You can practice along with the videos until you feel confident enough to guide your group, or you can play the video.
The videos has been made with no background noise and minimal movement and simple instructions to ensure that people with disabilities can confidently participate in the lesson.
If you would like specific art tutorials made for your residents just click on the button below.
Below are some examples of tutorials that you can purchase for as little as $1.95