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Heal Alzheimer's Disease With Art

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Anyone can use the healing power of art to reach a loved one living with Alzheimer's disease. The results can be astonishing. A student in my art and healing class wanted to reach his beloved grandfather who had been comatose and non-responsive. Since the grandson was studying guitar in graduate school, he decided to play the instrument for his grandfather. He brought his grandfather from his care facility to the home where he used to live and began to perform songs he had loved while growing up. Suddenly, the older man stood up and began dancing. His grandson caught this amazing transformation on video delighting family, friends and our class.

Stories like this are common among those who use the arts to help heal people living with Alzheimer's. There are several dramatic videos online showing Alzheimer's patients literally waking up from unresponsive states and becoming responsive and happy. Art, especially music, is one of the most powerful therapies for Alzheimer's disease, and anyone can do it. All it takes is an ordinary person who loves and cares for another. A recent article in the Boston Globe says, "Making music, painting or dancing -- and seeing or hearing it -- may be the most effective treatment for dementia to date."

There has been new exciting research about art and Alzheimer's that sheds light on this remarkable way of healing. Music and art stimulate areas of the brain not affected by Alzheimer's and accesses memories through routes that avoid affected language centers. Art actually helps the brain navigate new neurological communication pathways. Even if the Alzheimer's patient is unresponsive and can't remember where they are, a song can stimulate the sweet memories of youth that lay long buried.

Anyone can use art to help a loved one living with Alzheimer's. Like my student, you can perform music, but you can also make them a very special playlist on an iPod, dance with them, have them paint or paint with them, read poetry, stories or plays, or garden together. Any art that the Alzheimer's patient enjoys will open a huge new way of healing -- for yourself and for the one you love.

TIPS:

You can do it. Professional training is not necessary; anyone can be an artist/healer for a person living with Alzheimer's.

Proven results. There are countless examples of the power of art in healing all over the world. Trust the process and believe in yourself.

Keep it simple. Music is the easiest and most researched way to reach a person with Alzheimer's but you also can use painting, sculpting and poetry. Gear you art to the person's skill level at the moment.

Go into the past to heal the present. Art evokes memories. Any art that brings up a memory is powerful. A song from a past event evokes the memory of a first kiss. A painting or photograph of the family home can help evoke childhood memories.

Make it stimulating. Choose bright colors collage from old photograph albums, lively music, dances.

Make art in a sacred space. Make the place as wonderful and beautiful as you can. Play soft music in the background -- make the lighting bright enough to see easily, add scents from aroma therapy and even make a small altar with loved objects from the past.

Support with loving kindness and compassion. Make all your comments nonjudgmental and loving. Art and healing is about process, not the product. It's all about love and relationship.

Ask them to tell you the story about the artwork. If your loved one can still speak ask them to share the memories that come with the art, music or words.

Show the art. Showing the art makes the loved one feel valued and promotes community and socialization.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, music and art can enrich the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease by allowing for self-expression and engagement even after dementia has progressed. Many organizations are using the power of art to help those living with Alzheimer's. The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) has an annual art contest at senior centers to encourage elderly people to stimulate their brains by making art. The I'm Still Here Foundation started Artists for Alzheimer's initiative (ARTZ) that helps more than 10,000 Alzheimer's and dementia patients attend arts events. This greatly enhances the lives of Alzheimer's patients and reduces their symptoms.

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