Alzheimer’s patients take a walk down memory lane with the help of a paintbrush

Francesca D'Annunzio

Many people associate watercolor painting and magazine collages with craft activities at  elementary schools or summer camps. However, art has also been used as a therapeutic practice since the 1940s, and evidence suggests it greatly benefits those with degenerative neurological disorders.

The Mobile Art Program, a group in Austin, works with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia to bring the joy of creating art to low-income communities of the elderly.

Theresa Bond Zelazny, who the founded the program, said she has been doing art with seniors and disabled adults since 2005. Zelazny witnessed remarkable things over the years that occur when dementia patients engage in creating art.

“They may be able to discuss in detail something that happened to them when they were five or something that they did as a young adult,” Zelazny said.

“Then they can talk about it, verbalize it (and) nonverbally as well through color and composition.”

Lindsey Taucher, a licensed professional therapist who uses art interventions in the Austin area, said dementia patients have physical and emotional responses when creating art, regardless of where they are on the cognitive spectrum.

“(It’s) a kinesthetic process that ties body and brain together,” Taucher said. “It taps into the emotional side of things to a fault. That ties into their flexing their cognitive (abilities) and working on their memory and recall of what they’ve made.”

Zelazny said she has seen this in action, recalling a woman in her 90s who was able to pick up paint and draw from memory.

“The attendant was just in shock,” Zelazny said. “She didn’t know this woman could do any of that. Turns out her family said that she had been a master gardener and she grew up on a farm. While she couldn’t verbalize these memories, she just became fully engaged in creating her childhood memories on the farm.”

According to Andrea Mooney, an art therapist based in the Philadelphia area, and Martha Wells, the owner of Young At Art, a business that connects artists with retirement homes, art therapy has a significant positive impact on the sense of self.

“One of the biggest benefits of art therapy with older adults is that sort of validating of them, who they are and their identity, which can certainly change as you get older,” Mooney said. “Art therapy allows older adults who may be experiencing cognitive decline the ability to express feelings about change and transition, even loss. A lot of older adults may be going through that. The art can sort of be the catalyst for that discussion.”

Like Mooney, Taucher believes that art therapy is validating for the elderly and is an important way to boost their self image.

“Making art will usually result in some sort of increase in self-esteem,” Taucher said. “Especially the elderly sometimes feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ they still look at it (after) and say, ‘Wow! Look at that! I did that!’”

Wells said she is adamant about using art to lift up those with dementia and getting them in touch with the inner self.

“It’s important to just help people feel centered,” Wells said. “I see a lot of good coming from it for the teachers and the students. (Their condition), they’re not inhibitors. It’s just the condition that they’re in and they can still make amazing art.”