How Painting can help Alzheimer’s Disease

Like any disease, Alzheimer’s affects different people differently and there are numerous diagnoses depending on neurological factors.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society: “Dementia is the name for a set of symptoms that includes memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Dementia develops when the brain is damaged by diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a physical disease that affects the brain. It is named after Alois Alzheimer, the doctor who first described it.”

The various kinds of Alzeihmer’s diagnosis are

  • Frontotemporal Dementia
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Mixed Dementia
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
  • Posterior Cortical Atrophy
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Korsakoff Syndrome

The classification of dementia is divided into three parts: mild, moderate, and severe. These can be hard to ‘label’ as these stages can overlap or rapidly advance from one to the next. Also, these labels don’t give us exact data on elements such as personality, memory, bodily functions, or other health effects. Most of us consider dementia to be the continued and rapid loss of memory and the eventual inability to fend for oneself. It can be a difficult process to witness for family members and friends and frustrating for the person who’s suffering from the disease. However, it does not always need to be a terrifying prospect. New therapies (for example, interactive arts) have been developed to provide palliative care; and to aid our understanding of the neurological effects on memory and cognitive skills.

Art has long been used as a form of therapy for trauma patients, children, and those with special needs. As a form of primal expression, it can aid our understanding of the consciousness. It’s a promising development for Alzeimher’s patients as it offers them the hope of better communicating with loved ones. This is important because those with Alzeihmer’s disease have a rich internal emotional life that needs to be expressed.

A 2016 study by Swedish researchers Boo Johansson and Emelie Miller found that people with Alzheimer’s have a preserved capability to paint. This  can be used as “an appreciated and beneficial activity” for people with Alzheimer’s.

A well known example of an artist who used his talents as a form of expression through his time with the disease was William Utermohlen, who created a collection of self portraits. The final pieces from the series offer a glimpse  into his mind and how it was affected by the disease. 

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William Utermohlen, Self Portrait (with Easel), 1996; William Utermohlen, Self Portrait (Green), 1997; William Utermohlen, Head I, 2000. Images courtesy of Chris Boicos Fine Arts, Paris.

William Utermohlen, Self Portrait (with Easel), 1996; William Utermohlen, Self Portrait (Green), 1997; William Utermohlen, Head I, 2000. Images courtesy of Chris Boicos Fine Arts, Paris.

Alzeihmer’s patients still have consciousness yet are unable to communicate through standard means such as speech. Painting and drawing can give patients a place of solace and an opportunity to express emotions and memories through their artwork. For families, it’s also a chance to experience a positive social interaction with their loved one and communicate in new ways. It can also lead to the better monitoring of the disease’s progress. 

English charity Arts 4 Dementia advocate for this kind of work. According to founder Veronica Franklin Gould ““Our workshops are centered on the person, we ask workshop leaders to focus on who people are,” Franklin says. “To ask what people did in their careers, their interests, really working with the person. Trainers also get to understand the different kinds of dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

Nursing home facilities around the country are aiming for a phased reopening as we exit Level 5, and there is hope for resumed visitations. The pandemic has not only isolated the ‘cocooning’ community, but also caused the regression of some patients, who may not have the same access to therapy classes or medical assessments. 

The arts have helped us all during these difficult times and can also help those who are isolated, battling their own mental health issues, or possibly suffering from a long term illness like Alzeihmer’s. Are the arts undervalued in Ireland? That’s something I feel really needs to be addressed post pandemic.

KathyAnn Murphy
KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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