Providers should adopt a more holistic approach to dementia care, employing both medical treatments and art engagement programs to treat people living with Alzheimer’s. 

President and co-founder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care (USA), Dr John Zeisel, spoke of the wonders of Alzheimer’s art programs at HammondCare’s 8th Biennial International Conference on Dementia in Sydney yesterday. 

He drew on the experience of current programs, both overseas and in Australia, to demonstrate that cultural engagement stimulates expression and communication in people living with dementia.

Museum, poetry cafe and theatre visits, and even trips to the circus have elicited a great response. People with the condition, including those with communication difficulties, were able to discuss the art once prompted by the “right” open-ended questions.

“Imagination remains vibrant throughout the illness,” Dr Zeisel said. “The brain stays making stories and stays imaginative.”

“People come into these events and say, ‘Where are the people with Alzheimer’s?’”

Dr Zeisel explained that the pre-set hardwired universal elements of the brain are responsible for artistic and facial expressions, the reaction to the sun’s warmth and brightness, and a person’s response to touch and greenery. These hard-wired elements do not differ between cultures and nor do they change with the onset of dementia.

“If there was a pill that could do this then it would be on the front page of every newspaper and it would make a lot of money. For some reason these kind of programs don’t get the [same] support because it’s merely poetry.”

Artistic engagement profoundly impacts upon an individual’s quality of life, providing meaning as well as stimulation. 

“Meaning in our life is a human right not an option…While medications give us more time to live with Alzheimer’s, the crime is that without meaning, we don’t have a life worth living.

“We don’t have to do a questionnaire. You see the joy, the presence and the engagement”

Art, he said, can and will have a profound effect on anxiety, apathy, aggression and agitation levels.

Cultural engagement has the potential to reduce depression and prevent a person from moving into high care. The stigma associated with dementia could also be broken down as a result of artistic engagement, as the broader community begins to recognise people living with Alzheimer’s as interesting individuals.

Dr Zeisel recommended that program coordinators conduct these programs, using the talents of volunteer artists. A commitment of only one hour a year would be compulsory, as most volunteers usually offer much more of their time through choice. 

The cultural event must also take place at a regular time, on a specific day, so that involvement becomes a learnt task and a common part of their lives.

Outings do not have to cost a lot either. Dr Zeisel recommends that providers tap into underused resources, coordinating days and times that venues are empty for maximum cost benefits.
 

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