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Creative Therapies for Loved Ones with Dementia

By Julie Hayes | 06/15/2023

An older adult listening to music together with a caregiver

While dementia does not yet have a cure, there are ways to treat and soothe a person with dementia’s symptoms and make their potential anxiety, stress, moods and challenging behavior easier to manage. If you’re a caregiver for a loved one with dementia, the creative arts are a great option to consider when it comes to supportive therapies. The arts can help engage your loved one’s attention in something stimulating often soothing, while giving them a way to express their emotions and thoughts in a way they may struggle to do verbally. The arts can also be beneficial for loved ones with both intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and dementia, who may be experiencing increasing challenges in expressing themselves and confidently building and practicing skills using other means.

Here are some examples of creative therapies to consider:

Music Therapy

Music is a big part of our lives and culture, and is entangled in our moods and memories in ways we might not even realize. The first dance at a wedding, the song every one was obsessed with in high school, the playlist you put together for workouts, the music played at religious ceremonies, the setlist of your first concert, the song you related to most when you were sad or lonely—all of these have a way of sparking memories, creating a mood or bringing you back to a certain state of mind.

The same can be said for a loved one with dementia. Factual information and specific detail can be very difficult for a loved with dementia to recall, but emotions are far more accessible. If a song has emotional meaning to them, they’ll oftentimes be able to revisit that emotion and respond to the music which sparks it. Engaging with music important to them can help them:

  • Manage anxiety and depression
  • Revisit memories and emotions of their past
  • Bond with family, friends and caregivers
  • Engage in discussions about the music they remember and enjoy
  • Regulate emotions and behavioral outbursts

Look for ways to incorporate music your loved one enjoys and finds soothing into their daily routine. You might also consider engaging your loved one with music in different ways, such as letting them drum or play and instrument, or singing along with them to the radio. A professional music therapist can also work with your loved one in an individual or group setting.

For more information of music therapy, visit our article on Music Therapy for Dementia Care.

Art Therapy

There’s a reason art is such an important part of child development and early education: it’s a great way to express oneself before language fully develops, improve motor skills and create something one can share with others and take pride in. A loved one with dementia can benefit for similar reasons. Art therapy can help them:

  • Convey thoughts and emotions they can’t put into words
  • Stimulate their brain and trigger feelings of pleasure that may help work against anxiety, depression and stress
  • Build a sense of confidence and achievement
  • Focus and engage their attention in a meaningful project
  • Exercise and improve fine motor skills

The great part about art is that there are so many ways to create it. Your loved one is likely to respond to certain forms of art more than others, so it doesn’t hurt to try out different types, such as coloring, fingering painting, working with clay or putty, basic crafting and so on.

Storytelling and Reminiscence Therapy

Your loved one may not be able to recall all the details of their past, but pieces of their history still remain within them and matter to them, especially the emotions. Try pulling out a photo album and going through it with your loved one. See what your loved one has to say about the photos. If they don’t remember, you can take the lead on guiding them through certain stories. Try to avoid asking too many questions, pressuring them to remember specifics or correcting them too much when they make mistakes. Instead, try making observations that help encourage discussion.

Reminiscence therapy can also be helpful to your work as a caregiver. By better understanding your loved one’s history and the emotions tied into it, you can reflect their values, likes and dislikes in the care you provide and recognize how their experiences may reflect their habits and behaviors.

For more information, visit our article on the Benefits of Reminiscence and Storytelling in Improving Caregiving.

Writing Therapy

Journaling is a great way for people of all ages to explore emotions, build a sense of self-identity and focus on mental health in a way that is easy to establish as a daily routine. A loved one with dementia can use writing and journaling as a way to work through the difficult emotions of the earlier stages of the diagnosis. As the disease progresses, it may become more difficult to write or express their thoughts coherently. However, journaling can still remain a soothing part of their routine and give them a way to express themselves, even if their writing may not always be clear to anyone but them.

This article was written as a part of the Expansion of Dementia-Capable Communities within Urban and Rural Settings in Ohio using Evidence-Based and Informed Programming project, funded by the Administration for Community Living, Alzheimer’s Disease Program’s Initiative (#90ADPI0052-01-00). Learn more here.

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