Patients with dementia commonly experience neuropsychiatric symptoms that diminish their quality of life. Pharmacologic treatments for these symptoms are limited in their efficacy. In the absence of near-future prospects for a cure for degenerative dementias, treatments that improve neuropsychiatric symptoms and quality of life are needed.
Art therapy has been found to be useful in dementia patients as well as their caregivers. With appropriate structure, patients with dementia and their caregivers, can produce and appreciate visual art. Case studies and several small trials suggest that art therapy engages attention, provides pleasure, and improves neuropsychiatric symptoms, social behavior, and self-esteem.
In the 1940s, the artist Adrian Hill coined the term ‘art therapy.” Art therapy has origins in both art and psychotherapy. It is framed as a therapeutic process to enhance well-being (“art as therapy”) and as a psychotherapeutic relationship between therapist and patient.
Hill initially used art therapy in people with tuberculosis. It was then used in patients unable to engage in traditional talk therapy and more recently has helped people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder, an issues closely related to caregiver burn-out. Elderly participants in the arts feel better and less lonely and need fewer medications and doctor visits.
While the evidence suggests that art therapy can help many kinds of patients, its efficacy in diseases that directly affect the nervous system is less clear. If psychiatric symptoms arise directly from neural pathology, rather than as a reaction to a devastating illness like cancer, could art therapy help?
The evidence to date, limited as it is, suggests that artistic engagement may improve behavioral symptoms and the quality of life in patients with dementia.
Art therapy for dementia is typically provided by art therapists, artists, facilitators to small groups of patients in a clinical or care setting or trained caregivers. Art therapy has traditionally emphasized qualitative over quantitative evidence.
As observed, art therapy engages attention, provides pleasure, and improves behavior and affect in patients with dementia and caregivers. Other benefits include enhanced self-esteem and improved communication and reduced anxiety, agitation, and depression.
One study found that patients’ and caregivers’ mood improved during and after art therapy sessions. Early stage dementia patients and caregivers were evaluated over 9 months. Assessments included pre and post-session self-report mood scales, observer rated instruments, take-home evaluations, and follow up focus groups.
The mood of both patients and caregivers improved during sessions. Caregivers reported improved mood in 55% of patients and self-esteem in 27% of patients that lasted days. Caregivers also reported that they themselves felt a greater social connection and fewer emotional problems.
PLEASE NOTE: These statements and therapies have not been evaluated by the FDA as medical treatment or cure for any disease and are provided as a possible additions to current medical treatment to enhance quality of life and comfort. This information is based on research, studies, observations and experienced use by therapists, physicians, caregivers and their patients / loved ones. Many physicians are in favor of the use of these alternative therapies. Some are not. We recommend discussing any therapies you are considering with your physician, make an effort to partner with him / her in their use before starting. Ultimately the decision is yours.
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