If you're a reader of the New York Times, you may have noticed a growing number of articles over the past few years about the effect of music and art on Alzheimer's disease. Typically individuals with Alzheimer's develop what doctors refer to as the four A's: anxiety, aggression, agitation, and apathy. However, when patients are in front of great art, they calm down, and their "emotional memory" comes alive. Emotional memory refers to the feelings they've had related to people and events in their past. It turns out that deeply held memories and creative impulses remain intact even as the disease advances - the problem is patients can't access them. Researchers in Alzheimer's disease theorize that art can serve as a kind of road map to parts of the brain that govern memory and communication.
In 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York developed the Meet Me at MoMA program, specifically designed for people with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers. The project entails monthly interactive tours of the Museum's renowned collection of modern art and special exhibitions for individuals in the early and middle stages of the disease, along with their family and caregivers.
In addition to viewing art, affected individuals can also benefit from creating art. Artists for Alzheimer's is a nationwide program for artists, musicians, actors, chefs, and dancers to volunteer once a year in an assisted living home for persons with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, to share and teach their craft to the patients. The Spruill Center for the Arts in Atlanta began artist training last fall, in collaboration with the Alzheimer's Association of Georgia, and the William Bremen Jewish Home. I went through the Artists for Alzheimer's-Atlanta training program in January and was absolutely amazed! Even a patient in the later stages of Alzheimer's responded to a watercolor class. Her abstract painting was more than an outlet for healing - I could see that she had real talent. When I found out later that she used to be a professional artist, my heart broke.
I'm in the process of developing a mixed media collage painting class that I will be teaching to patients at the William Bremen Jewish Home later this month. I'll be talking about my experience on my blog in future posts. Stay tuned!