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Art therapy has many benefits for people with dementia, as Jean and her daughter Sarah have discovered.

Here, art therapist Cate Smail explains more about art therapy

What is art therapy?

Artistic activities, such as painting, colouring and crafts have long been known to have therapeutic benefits. Making art in the presence of an art therapist has the capacity to aid relaxation, decrease stress and help to ease depression, anxiety and pain. Art Therapy is a way of helping to adjust, stimulate and preserve mental capacity along with improving dexterity and therefore achieving a better quality of life.

Why is art therapy different to an art class?

Art therapists will consider how experiences have shaped each individual, and select the appropriate approach and methods to help facilitate personal growth and change.
The Art Therapist will work alongside carers and other professionals to become an integral part of a person’s care plan. Art Therapy can help with the challenges that ageing brings by helping to develop coping strategies and a sense of autonomy.

Art Therapy can…

• Help people to relax
• Reduce stress
• Alleviate isolation and loneliness through sharing experience with others
• Increase confidence and self-esteem
• Bring a sense of achievement from being creative
• Provide an alternative, non-verbal way to express feelings
• Help someone to communicate issues that may be difficult or confusing
• Provide a way to explore issues such as grief, anger or loss
• Help to bring back memories from the past and encourage reminiscence

Jean’s Story

Jean is 86 years old and has been living with dementia for about four years. She moved into residential care in 2015, and now lives in a unit for people with dementia. She cannot stand or move and is confined to a wheelchair. She can only use her right arm and hand, and needs help to eat. She still recognises close family and understands some conversation, but her communication is poor and she rarely speaks. She has been attending a weekly art therapy group for the past two years and has found a way to express herself through her art.

Her daughter Sarah says: “In the dementia unit, Mum is able to attend the art therapy sessions most weeks, and it is something that she clearly enjoys doing. She had never painted before she came to the care home and she is now able to use watercolours to paint flowers and plants. Mum was a vital, clever and active woman, at first a full-time homemaker and mother to 2 children, then going to University in middle age. She worked for charity, enjoyed entertaining and was a wonderful cook. She also loved reading and theatre. Her deterioration, both physical and mental, was very rapid.

It is wonderful to see her being active and engaging in something creative that is stimulating, holds her attention, and gives her a sense of achievement.”

Art therapist Cate explains:

Jean always seems keen to attend the art therapy group. At the start, I chat to her whilst setting up the special easel we have adapted for her mobility needs. Then I spend a little time engaging with her to find out how she is feeling and what she would like to paint.

She is quickly able to focus and becomes fully engaged with her art making. She seems to enjoy the soothing movement of the brush over the paper and the ritual of dipping the brush into the palette. Slowly her image emerges on the paper. She focuses throughout the hour of the session, entirely absorbed in her art making. At the end, she enjoys sharing her picture with the others in the group. She likes to listen to their comments, sometimes offering her own enthusiastic comment ‘beautiful’ about what others have created.

For residents like Jean, art therapy is a relaxing and calming activity that can offer a huge sense of achievement. It provides a sense of autonomy in an environment where they often feel that they have little control over what is happening.

4 facts you might not know about art therapy

1.  The art therapist is a trained psychotherapist enabling her/him to be more sensitive to each individual’s needs.
2.  Art therapists work in a range of settings, including care home, hospice, private residence and hospital and work with a wide range of people.
3.  Art therapy sessions can be held with a group or individual. While group work creates a sense of community and builds relationships, for some people it is more appropriate to have one-to-one sessions, for example someone who is very frail may be seen at their bedside.
4.  The therapist encourages everyone to work in a very personal way, this can promote a sense of identity and acceptance of a changing self-image.

For more information about art therapy visit: www.arttherapy4all.co.uk