Every week one of the residents in the memory care program at Dominion Senior Living in Sevierville, Tennessee, would walk past an oil painting class in progress. He inched his way closer and closer until he had gravitated from hugging the opposite wall as he passed by to coming in and standing over the artists' shoulders. After repeatedly refusing an invitation to join in, his curiosity and the instructor's encouragement finally got the better of him, and he picked up a brush. By the time he completed his second painting, he was confident enough to present it to his wife as a gift.
Bonnie Parton, who teaches the class as director of the residential facility's Art from the Heart program, says her new pupil's enthusiasm nearly brought her to tears.
“He looked up and smiled at me and said, 'I didn't think I could do this, but this is fun. My wife is going to be so proud of me,'" Parton recalls.
Research has shown that doing artwork can help patients with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia improve their language skills, memory and mood. Parton has seen those effects at work in the residents of the facilities where she works, helping to alleviate the stress and depression they sometimes feel after being uprooted from their homes.
Art can serve as a visual voice for patients who have difficulty communicating verbally. A recent Canadian study suggested that the ability to draw can be preserved in the brain long after cognitive impairment in other areas has set in.
People with Alzheimer's and other problems with memory deficits often get restless, so their attention spans may be short when it comes to working on an art project, Parton says. Knowing this, she likes to break down each project into small steps.
“Whenever I teach someone with memory care issues, I have a hands-on, show-and-tell approach," says Parton, who also teaches craft and cooking classes at the Sevierville site and another location in Johnson City, Tennessee.
She'll bring in one of her own paintings as an example, letting the students touch it and examine different sections one by one. As they begin painting, she holds their hands to guide their brush strokes.
Parton's craft class has created everything from birdhouses to giant Christmas carolers constructed from two-by-fours. One of their projects, a shoe garden, is on permanent display in their courtyard. They painted and decorated old donated shoes and, after Parton took the shoes home to varnish, planted them with flowers.
For family caregivers looking for a simple art project to do at home, a national home care franchise has taken a hot trend among young adults and adapted it for seniors. The SYNERGY HomeCare Coloring Club offers specially designed coloring sheets that you can download for free online. The company points to such benefits of coloring as strengthening hand and arm muscles and inducing calm through the intense concentration on the image being created. Images that related to past experiences—such a farm picture for someone who had a rural childhood—may even trigger memories.
Seeing their loved ones engaging in art activities is gratifying for caregivers, too, Parton says. Often family members are surprised to discover that seniors with dementia are capable of producing art. And while many assisted living centers, senior living communities and adult daycare centers now offer art therapy programs, Parton says she faced some resistance from the professionals when she first proposed teaching art to residents with dementia.
“Everybody said: 'They're older. They don't have the skills. They shake. They can't concentrate,'" Parton remembers. “And I said: 'Yes they can.'"
If your parent loves art, but doesn't know how to get started, check out our post on finding your inner artist.