Jul 22, 2016

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's Patients

Alzheimer's Reading Room

"If they weren't in here doing art therapy, you'd think they were completely gone," said Ben Wells, Golden Livingcenter's executive director. "Most don't recognize family members, or even (remember) how to eat. There's something about the art therapy that brings out something deep inside."

Former elementary art teacher now works with Alzheimer's patients.


It started with real paint brushes and make-believe paint, applied to the big-band sounds of Tommy Dorsey.

"This lady loves to paint!" Laurie Lunsford had announced over the music, greeting the advanced Alzheimer's patients as they were rolled or escorted into the activity room at the Golden Livingcenter. Now with dry brushes in hand, they stroked and dabbed on a print of a painting by Michael Coleman called In the Adirondacks, practicing for the fun to come.

"We're warming up," Lunsford explained, shortly before passing out jars of blue, red, green and yellow watercolor. "It's getting them revved up to do the real painting."

Soon enough, the residents -- all 80-somethings, and including Marie Morris, Zora Begley, Dorothy Bannister and Maxine Siewert -- were applying real colors to a large sheet of plain white poster board. One corner resembled a patch of ocean-blue sky. Elsewhere, undulating lines looked like the charting of a bear or bull stock market, depending from which direction you looked.

But either way, the women were moving and, at least to some extent, interacting.

That was a minor miracle.

"If they weren't in here doing art therapy, you'd think they were completely gone," said Ben Wells, Golden Livingcenter's executive director. "Most don't recognize family members, or even (remember) how to eat. There's something about the art therapy that brings out something deep inside."

That, to be sure, is why Lunsford voluntarily does this each week at four local nursing homes.

"It's a mission I believe in," said the former elementary school art teacher, an advocate of the arts-and-health-care movement. "I think it is essential. It is needed. They come alive."

As her painting class continued, Lunsford worked to engage the women in several other artistic efforts.

"We ought to make up a story about this," she said, motioning toward the print of the Coleman painting, which featured two black bears in a tree. "Tell me a bear story."

And while you couldn't say the talk that resulted was a story, the women attempted to verbalize something, with Maxine even expressing what sounded like some long-recessed thought about a bear and Wyoming.

"How old were you?" Lunsford asked.

"Well, I was married," the elderly woman responded, plainly.

Putting it into words

From there, the group tried recitation. "The bear went over the mountain" and "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" were attempted before Lunsford moved on to simple poems like "Roses are red, violets are blue ..." all the while encouraging the women to add new stanzas.

From somewhere, the word "beans" popped up.

"OK, give me a sentence with beans at the end," Lunsford urged.

"I do not like beans too well," Maxine responded, as the others also attempted to join in.

The women also smiled, and even laughed, and when one who can't dress herself requested a bib to protect her sweater from paint stains, it raised onlookers' eyebrows.

If, by comparison, most of their responses lacked what we would consider rational mental input, Lunsford cautioned that in this room, success had another measure.

"It's not the finished product," she said, "it's the process. You go with the flow a lot."

"I wanted to learn more how Alzheimer's would respond to it," she said. "Research shows if you stimulate the creative part of the brain, it gets the rest of your brain moving."

Observable results

Todd Starkey, director of Golden Livingcenter's Alzheimer's care, has observed this in action.

"What I have seen," he said, "is their attention span is much greater than before. They'll sit down for an hour at a time. ... I see a better mood. Their social interaction is better. It relieves a lot of frustration for them."

Something even more surprising?

"Our falls have greatly reduced," Starkey said. "We had half the amount of falls in one month in that advanced Alzheimer's group, so it's very exciting stuff."

Results of such arts activities in the mid-stage Alzheimer's group, he added, are even more pronounced.

"Creativity there is very much alive," Starkey said.

That's why he's grateful to Lunsford for her work.

"I feel like she's very passionate about what she does," he explained. "She's a blessing to have here on the unit."

As for her, Lunsford said the spirit-lifting properties of the arts have been important in her own life. Meld that fact with her passion for helping the elderly, and the natural result is programs like those she is leading. As for the future, her plans include possibly expanding that mission to a business that brings the arts to the home bound.

Still, the volunteer work she does right now is its own particular joy.

"It brings new life to every part of a person," Lunsford said, while the women surrounding her moved their brushes across the paper.

She includes herself in that joyful reaction, by the way.

"I brighten my own day," she said of her sessions. "There's enough sad stuff in this world. To bring happiness to someone is very fulfilling."

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Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room