Oct 16, 2016

How to Conduct Art Activities With People Who Have Alzheimer’s

There is substantial research supporting the notion that activities using ART are beneficial to people living with Alzheimer’s.

The importance of art in Alzheimer's care and dementia care.
By Marie Marley
My article published here last week dealt how to conduct music activities with people who have Alzheimer’s. Today’s article discusses how to use art.

Activities using art can engage persons living with dementia and make them more lively and in touch.

Art can usually also reach those in the latest stages of the disease—even when they no longer talk or recognize loved ones.

The purpose of this article is to provide down-to-earth, practical advice on how to use art to engage, comfort, communicate with, and bring joy to your loved one who is either living at home or in a care community.

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The tips presented are based on my personal experience as a caregiver, articles and books I have published, articles and books by other specialists in Alzheimer’s care, and information obtained during interviews with national experts.

Coping with Alzheimer's

I will discuss two common art activities here: 1. Observing art and 2. Painting.

In addition, Bell and Troxel give instructions for 18 different ways to use art in their book on Alzheimer’s activities. I recommend purchasing this book, The Best Friends Book of Alzheimer’s Activities, which includes step by step instructions for carrying out a total of 147 activities of various types for people with Alzheimer’s. It’s well worth the purchase price.

Something Meaningful

Tom and Karen Brenner state in their book - You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care  - that “One of the most effective techniques we use to prime the pump of memory is also one of the most simple: put something meaningful in a person’s hands.”

This is an excellent piece of advice that can be applied to many activities. For art, that meaningful item could be a book with colorful photos or a paintbrush.

General Advice for Using Art

Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN (interview) presents the following general advice for using art with people who have Alzheimer’s:

1. Focus on the process—not the final product.

2. The activity should take into account the person’s life experiences and interests.

3. You should actively participate in the activity with your loved one.

4. You may not need to have a new activity every time. People may forget they did it before. Every time can be like the first time.

5. Be flexible and follow where the person leads and what he or she want to do—not what you want to do.

Observing Art

Activities could include looking at picture books or visiting museums or art fairs.

Potts recommends that while perusing books with artistic photos, you can ask people open-ended questions about what they’re seeing. This will prompt reminiscing and help promote a bond with them.

According to Potts, many art museums have guides trained to interact with people living with Alzheimer’s. If your area has such a program, it would be good to take your loved one to that museum, provided the person is able to go out in public.

Potts says that after the tour, some museums also have an art therapist who will guide the person in creating works of art.

If your city doesn’t have a museum with one of these programs, you can accompany your loved one yourself. In addition, some museums, including the Louvre, have apps that allow you to visit them on an iPad. This is especially helpful for people who, for one reason or another, can’t be taken out in public.

Potts suggests that as with looking at a picture book, be sure to ask the person open-ended questions about the paintings they’re viewing to promote reminiscing.


Painting is one of the more common activities carried out with people who have dementia. Potts recommends giving the person water colors, acrylic paints or pastel chalks, three of the more popular media for these people. They allow your loved one to be freely expressive. He says to be sure to purchase high quality, heavy paper, especially for water colors.

Deborah Shouse told me that some people might take right to drawing and painting, even if they haven’t tried the medium before. Others may need a special invitation, perhaps an opportunity to help you on a painting project.

Beth Hunter says that it can be intimidating for the person to be faced with a blank sheet of paper. She recommends that you participate in the activity through painting yourself, either on the person’s paper or on a separate sheet.

Another way she suggests overcoming the person’s difficulty in getting started is to ask them to just paint the sky.

Potts suggests helping the person get started by asking him or her to tell you what a certain color means to them. For example, you might ask, “Do you like red? What does it make you think about?

He says that just as looking at art or going to a museum, you should ask open-ended questions about what they’re painting that will lead to reminiscing.

You may place a painting in front of your loved one and ask him or her to replicate it or you can simply ask to the person to paint anything he or she wants.

Potts discusses “hand paintings,” which he says are especially easy. In “hand paintings” the person places his or her hands on a sheet of paper and traces an outline of them. You may ask questions such as “What have your hands done?” You can then ask them to paint that.

One of Dr. Potts’ Personal Experiences With Art.  Potts relates the story a crusty old guy with Alzheimer’s they affectionately called “Mr. Jimmy.” When asked if he’d like to paint a self-portrait, he immediately answered, “Now why would I want to paint this jackass?” So the students who had been guiding him promptly labeled his painting as he wished: “Jackass!”

How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

This is the second in a series of four articles that will explore how to use the following with people who have Alzheimer’s: 1. Music, 2. Art, 3. Children or infants (and dolls), and 4. Pets (and stuffed animals).

Interviews for This Article:

1. Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, noted neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. Dr. Potts’ father, Lester Potts, became an artist of acclaim when he had Alzheimer’s.

2. Beth Hunter, Resident Program Director, Brookdale Senior Living Solutions, Overland Park, KS

3. Deborah Shouse, author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, and Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together.

Marie Marley is the author of the award-winning ‘Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy’ and coauthor (with neurologist Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of ‘Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers.’ Her website, ComeBackEarlyToday.com, contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

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