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This post is the second in a series of three on using art therapy for seniors with memory loss. It is based on our experience with our own care homes that specialize in caring for individuals with memory loss. See the first post, on the benefits of art therapy, here.

Doing art with our loved ones is not just about getting meaningless coloring pages to fill in the day. It isn’t about getting through an activity as fast as we can to move on to the next activity. It’s about using art as a process to enrich lives, access memories, and give meaning and structure to the day.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some guidelines for making art truly therapeutic….and fun!

  • Choose Easy but Meaningful Art Projects- Projects that are two difficult for elders may just create frustration. For instance, this last Easter we bought a kit to make Ukrainian eggs! They pictures on the box were GORGEOUS, but we knew right away that the project would be too difficult due to the amount of precision and time required. On the other hand, choosing activities that are too easy or childish might result in less interest. For example, gluing cotton balls to a paper to make a cloud is easy, but some individuals could find it irrelevant or even demeaning. The trick is to find something both doable and meaningful to get the most out of the time.
  • Develop Themes – Themes are a wonderful way to give meaning to activities and to create continuity between the day, week, or month. For example, at Magnolia and Primrose we picked a different April-related theme for each week in April. “Themes of the week” in April included baseball, spring blossoms, and Easter. To develop a theme, look at what holidays, seasons, or special dates are coming up soon. Use the theme to connect the art to special memories For instance, one of the activities during baseball week was making a pennant. Elders could put their names, special number, favorite teams, whatever on it! During the activity, conversation about baseball memories are easily evoked and great conversation ensues. Displaying art afterwards also helps continue the theme and build upon it with future activities.

    A baseball that has been extensively used

    Nearly everyone has strong baseball memories!(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Use Art to Reminisce and Converse-  Individuals with memory loss or Alzheimer’s may have trouble remembering recent events, but many can recall treasured memories of the past., and many love to reminisce on these memories. Art projects can be one way to start conversation about these memories. Even a simple coloring page of an apron or a jack-o-lantern can become meaningful because of the conversation it facilitates.
  • Involve Children- Many elders love to visit with children. You should see how some of our resident’s light up when children come for a “play date”! If your loved one has children that come to visit, try to involve all of them in some form of art! Many times I see our residents brighten at the chance to help a young child with a craft If a craft is too hard, music is another lovely way to create art and connect the generations. Choose songs that seniors know and that are easy to teach children. Add household instruments and voila!
  • Break it Into Pieces– More difficult projects CAN be done, but frequently they need to be broken into stages. This can be beneficial though as they again provide continuity and a sense of purpose. Don’t be afraid to break an art project into several days!
  • Follow your loved one’s Lead- When he or she says an art piece is done, it’s done!
  • Use a Variety of Mediums-Art is a sensory experience. Using a variety of senses is great for the brain! Try lots of different mediums: not only to see what your loved one is most capable of, but also to stimulate different parts of the brain. When we do art pages at Magnolia & Primrose, we know that some people are great with a paintbrushes and enjoy water colors. For others, a paintbrush is frustrating and crayons or makers are more appropriate. Beyond coloring & painting on a page you can do ceramics, origami with colorful paper, music, weaving, paper flowers, collages, and mosaics….the sky is the limit!

    Doodle Art

    Doodling is a great way to encourage self-expression. It can also be done as a group activity for fun! You start with a group of people in a circle. Everyone has one minute to start a doodle on their page. After a minute, the artists pass their papers and the next person adds another doodle. The end result is often interesting (and funny as well!)

  • Encourage self-expression- Planned art projects are wonderful and have their place, but there is a huge place for self-expression! Take for example painting: painting a picture of  country farm by coloring in the lines is fine and may work well for some individuals. This may not, however, allow for much self-expression. On the other hand, many people with dementia would not be able to create a farm scene from a blank piece of paper. However, placing part of a farm scene on a paper  (such as grass and a fence) and having a discussion on farms may provide more space for self-expression.
  • Always consider safety – Some individuals may eat small beads or put toxic substances in their mouth. Also sharp objects may need supervision, so please consider safety always!

Hopefully this post gave you some guidance for using art with your loved one. Next time in post 3 of 3 on Art Therapy. we will discuss where to find ideas for projects and how to find inexpensive resources!

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