If words fail, paint—how art helps people with dementia

If words fail, paint—how art helps people with dementia

As a social worker for the past six years, my passion for developing therapeutic relationships and providing safe spaces for the self-empowerment of individuals and groups has vastly grown.  Using creative outlets to build relationships and support empowerment has always been something I was keen on exploring. With this in mind, I decided to become an art therapist through the Toronto Art Therapy Institute.

As part of my studies, I needed to create an art therapy project. After looking at some research on the use of a creative storytelling approach called TimeSlips™ created by Anne Basting, I decided that I could combine art therapy and storytelling.  People with dementia develop creative stories and art pieces during individual art therapy sessions while their caregivers develop artistic responses to these works.

I hoped to highlight how art helps support connections between people with dementia and their caregivers. I also wanted to show the community new ways of perceiving people with dementia. Sharing this project with the community allows others to see inside the creative life world of people who participate.

Through art, people with dementia can express thoughts and feelings when words are difficult to access.  The art piece becomes a valuable method of communication. Creating art relies on parts of the brain that stay intact when brain changes associated with dementia occur.

Another benefit is a sense of mastery, control and independence through self-expression. Through the artwork and associations made, people with dementia can share who they are with others and even experience personal growth.  The artwork represents a part of who they are and their feelings at that moment in time. By focusing so much on a particular moment, they can dive deep into the self and realize what is still there.

Becoming involved in creative expression helps people recognize what Professor Anne Basting refers to as the various social roles that can be played.  People with dementia can shed their negative identities as ‘diseased’ and see themselves as artist and creator. Even though their abilities have been limited by the disease, there are ways they can still excel.

I believe the combined use of creative storytelling and art therapy facilitates communication, authentic creative self-expression, a sense of mastery, independence and the performance of selfhood.  Sharing the works with the public reinforces a dialogue about what people with dementia are capable of and forges new pathways of hope, connection, relationship and community, lending support to the slogan “See me, not my disease.”

The pieces will be featured in an art display at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario from March 8th to March 17th. An official honorary celebration will be held on March 16th from 12 to 2 p.m. 

kirstenKirsten Camartin, MSW RSW, DTATI Cand. holds a Master of Social Work degree from Carleton University and is a registered social worker currently completing a graduate diploma in art therapy with the Toronto Art Therapy Institute. Kirsten has had art therapy practicum experiences with persons with memory loss through the Alzheimer Society Grey Bruce, Home and Community Support Services of Grey Bruce and the psychogeriatric unit at Grey Bruce Health Services in Owen Sound.  She has also recently published an article entitled “The use of art therapy” which was featured in the Canadian art therapy association journal in November 2012.



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