The importance of individualized engagement and the creative arts for people with Alzheimer’s

Following is a summary provided by Arts & Minds from the I Remember Better When I Paint screening and panel discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The event, held on May 29, 2013, was sponsored by Museum Access Consortium in partnership with Arts & Minds.

To share the impact of art on people with Alzheimer’s disease, a screening of I Remember Better When I Paint was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in partnership with Museum Access Consortium (MAC) and Arts & Minds. The documentary is narrated by Olivia de Havilland and shows how the creative therapies help people with Alzheimer’s and how these approaches can change the way we look at disease and how the worlds of art, science and medicine intersect.

It was through the co-director’s personal odyssey with her mother’s experience of Alzheimer’s that she was able to see how creativity changed her mother’s life. When she was trying to connect with her mother, an artist struggling with Alzheimer’s, she asked: “Mother, do you want to paint”? And, to her amazement, she responded, yes, I Remember Better When I Paint. These words were the catalyst for the project that brought more than 100 people to the Met museum on May 29, 2013.

Following the film we heard three panelists: bestselling author of Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, Gail Sheehy stressed the importance of getting family members involved from the beginning. Having served as AARP’s ambassador on caregiving and having travelled the country meeting hundreds of caregivers, she saw that one of their needs was to get a circle of care started. She stated, “it’s a family circle, but then it can radiate from there. Begin to get the neighbors involved; friends of Mom’s; maybe students at a local university who are taking some form of health education and who might want to volunteer; and then kind of spread it out. Wonderful for the loved one because then there are many different kinds of stimulation.”

Following, Dr. Sam Gandy, Chair of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, remarked on developments in Alzheimer’s disease research on the importance of engagement with art as an effective therapy. He stated that, “One of the most important has been just in the past couple of years, which has been in showing how important engagement is in either delaying onset in healthy people, or slowing progression in people who have the disease.” He emphasized the need for individualized engagement and stated that though physical exercise and diet play an important role, that “different people are engaged by different things, and that seems to be true whether it’s reading, whether it’s a musical instrument, whether it’s being engaged by the arts, and it’s clear that the things that engage them — the important factor in identifying mental stimulation that slows progression or delays onset, has to do with engagement.” When asked whether Judy Holstein’s remarks in the film that the imagination remains intact until the very end of the disease and whether it can be explained scientifically, Dr. Gandy stated that “It can, and obviously every person with Alzheimer’s is slightly different, but there are a couple things to point to. One is that there are examples of people who have never been writers, authors, painters, who feel their creative drive for the first time when they develop Alzheimer’s disease. This is well-documented, and even more so as we start to pay attention to it. Now, the other is that there is a part of the brain — the front part of the brain, called the frontal lobes — that acts as sort of a damper, that sort of breaks. To some extent, when the frontal lobes are involved with Alzheimer’s disease, they sort of relieve some of the inhibition and some of the creativity that begins to be manifest. So in some people it’s actually the disease that reveals their creative side.”

The third panelist and co-director of the film, Berna Huebner, quoted dementia expert, Dorothy Seman, who said that “our health education does not begin to teach the potential for the sacred relationship that can and should exist. Much of the real comfort and healing that needs to be done is in the context of listening with the ears of our heart.” She stated that looking back, that is what she was trying to do with her film. She said, “I was trying to listen with the ears of my heart when I asked my mother if she wanted to start painting again, and then she gave me that phenomenal answer that inspired my action and became the title of the book.”

The panel moderator, Carolyn Halpin-Healy, founder and executive director of Arts & Minds, then opened the floor for questions from the audience. The discussions then focused on research pertaining to medication and diet as well as possible new studies on using brain scans to see the effects of mental engagement and diet in the same way that they’ve been used to show the effects of exercise to cause the regression of pathology.

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