A new program from the Brain and Mind Centre, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art hopes to physically alter neural pathways in dementia sufferers through artmaking, writes Marina Trajkovich
header image credit: @massimiliano_pelletti
An elderly woman sits with her art therapist. She may have days where she can’t remember who she is, or her family, but brush and hand, in hand with Michelle Heldon, the blind woman feels connected. Once an artist, she is now experiencing an advanced form of dementia. Listening to what the women are creating together takes her back.
Even the most creatively challenged amongst us can benefit from art therapy. For some it’s an escape from the reality of life tainted by mental illness, for others, it’s a way back in.
T he MCA’s three-year program ‘Artful,’ in collaboration with the Brain and Mind Centre hopes to see that creating art can change and heal pathways in the brains of dementia patients.
“There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with dementia, a lot of loss as well, so feeling like they don’t know who they are anymore, the carer doesn’t know who they are anymore.”
“This gives them an opportunity to have a voice whatever that might be, even if it’s just a mark on a page, it’s a beautiful thing for the person with dementia to actually see, I can do something,” says Heldon, the director of the program.
“They are allowed to communicate through another medium rather than just talking, or being intelligent, or having a mind that works,” she says.
Maureen, an Artful participant
Dementia is a condition that affects 30% of people over the age of 85 and 10% of people over 65. It’s a degenerative condition that attacks the brain, impacting memory and causing decline until there is limited physical function and ultimately death. There is currently no cure or prevention.
“I certainly see changes happening in people whether it is just a stripping down of the inhibitions, so you’re allowing the people to come out a bit more, or whether it is something that’s a remapping of the brain. I hope that we do discover that it is that, but either way you see positive things happening.”
“We had one man who said this was the only time in his week that he could breathe: ‘I can breathe here, I can breathe, I never thought I could be an artist and now this is my safe space,’” she says.
Sharon Naismith is the clinical neuropsychologist from the Brain and Mind, conducting the research aspect of the program.
“When we were digging in the literature, we couldn’t find much about art specifically,” she says.
“The studies have really looked at how art can engage people and improve their quality of life rather than looking at art as a way of improving the functioning of the brain.”
She says that in her other cognitive studies with dementia sufferers, she has seen a change in the hippocampus, the key memory structure in the brain.
“We were more interested in the engaging in these visual creation kind of activities. We would expect to see changes in the hippocampus but also in the parietal and frontal networks of the brain too. It might be more of a network change than a single change.”
Art therapy and especially adult colouring has exploded into the public psyche over the last few years, with the US seeing a rise in sales from 1 to 12 million units from 2014 to 2015 and a continual rise since.
But art therapy has been around since the 1940s, improving the well being of people, from sufferers of autism, kids with disabilities, to ex veterans with PTSD.
Kylie Forster found instant relief with art therapy after it was recommended by her psychologist.
“When I started, it was the first time in a long time I was lost in the moment and not consumed by thoughts that my life wasn’t going the way I’d wanted it to. I have experienced mental health issues most of my adult life, but when post-natal depression hit me, I reached an all time low.”
“I was relying on devices such as alcohol to ‘escape’ my misery. Since taking up colouring I have been able to replace bad habits with colouring and use it to help lower my anxiety dramatically,” she says.
Gillian Mclay, has also found respite with art therapy, as a way to communicate past trauma and distract from the chronic pain that accompanies her lupus and fibromyalgia, conditions that effect her joints and muscles.
“The end product is not so important as the process. I find it extremely helpful in communicating experiences and trauma that words just cannot explain fully.”