Art and Dementia

Art Therapy: An Escape from Dementia

“I do not know what is going on, but it seems Alzheimer’s stops where creativity begins.”

-Individual with Alzheimer’s after completing a project


In my personal opinion, art is an integral part of our lives, regardless of one’s perceived artistic ability. Art inspires us our whole lives through, and does not stop if we develop Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. Sculptor Mary Hecht, painter Willem de Kooning and country music icon Glen Campbell are proof of that. Now, if you are like me, art is everything and everywhere. Architecture, literature, photography, music, carpentry, painting, sculpture, drawing, film, digital, performing… Even clothing, look no further than the runway for artistry and innovation, which eventually gets adapted to practical apparel. The possibilities of art are endless.

American painter Georgia O’Keefe once said, “Filling space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.” The word “space” can be interpreted any number of ways; it can be seen or unseen. What is beautiful is different for everyone, and it is the beauty in the medium that moves us.

A while back, I wrote about the science of Music and Memory and discussed the movie Alive Inside. Music is unseen but can touch us deeply, even in the depths of Alzheimer’s disease, and also spurs memories and brings us back to a different time in life. The same can be said for other mediums of art.

Mary Hecht was a Canadian sculptor who passed away in the spring of 2013 from advanced vascular dementia. At the time she died, Mary was unable to tell time, remember the names of certain animals or words she was asked to recall. Neurologists at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto have studied and found that artists with vascular dementia often times are still able to draw spontaneously from memory, despite their deterioration.

“Mary Hecht was a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved in spite of the degeneration of the brain and a loss in the more mundane, day-to-day memory functions,” Fornazzari said. One of the more amazing sketches was that of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, whom Mary sketched after hearing on the radio earlier in the day that he had passed away.
Art and Dementia Mary Hecht
The second artist I’d like to bring up is Willem de Kooning, a Dutch American abstract artist, born in the Netherlands in 1904. In the 1950’s New York art scene, de Kooning was one of the most prominent and celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters of the 20th century. de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1989, though as many of us know, the disease rears its head much earlier than a diagnosis is given. Many think the disease was apparent in his work in the early 80’s, and continued almost until his end of life.
Art and Dementia Willem de Kooning
The final artist I’ll be talking about here is our Rhinestone Cowboy, country music icon Glen Campbell. Glen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, went public with his disease and completed a farewell tour, accompanied by his family ending in 2012. During one of Glen’s last interviews, a CNN reporter pointed out that sometimes performing Glen was forgetting what key the song was in but asked how he could always remember the melody. Glen responded, “I couldn’t answer it, but I could do it. And I could do it when I want to do it. It’s amazing. Sometimes I don’t want to do it (laughs). No, it’s just something that’s in your system, that’s…I really don’t know what it is. I wish I knew.”

This past fall, Glen’s wife moved him from a facility back home where she is his primary caregiver as he journey’s through the sixth of the seven stages of the disease.

While these three artists are amazing examples of art and dementia, the principle extends even to those who did not make a career out of a standard art medium. Because of the impact of art on the brain, there is almost certainly a form that improves the quality of life for every individual.

At our memory care homes, different forms of art therapy are incorporated daily on our Meaningful Engagement calendar. Art activities like the recent snow globe project for the holidays, sing-a-longs, movie nights and “Dean Martin pedicure day.” We have music therapists, in addition to musical entertainment, visit weekly. Our Resident’s especially enjoy Mandala Painting and scrap booking time.

Dr. Daniel Potts, a neurologist and dementia specialist in Alabama, told Medical Daily, “Art therapy is helpful for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients because it enables an individual who is having trouble communicating to bypass the language problems they may be having and communicate and express themselves in a different way.”

Though cognition will undoubtedly continuously decline through the disease, the sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness from art does not get lost on our loved ones with dementia. We just need to take the time to discover what it is that moves them.

Art and Dementia




This blog post is the product of research and opinion by Lizzie Regnier, Administrative Assistant.

2 Responses