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Art & Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s

Gary Joseph LeBlanc, is the author of "Staying Afloat in a Sea of Forgetfulness," “The Aftereffects of Caregiving,” "Managing Alzheimer's and Dementia Behaviors" and co- author of "While I Still Can." He was the primary caregiver of his father for more than eight years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is now a national speaker on dementia caregiving. The following article has been previously published by Gary, and I thank him for granting permission to reproduce his artlicles on this website.

My father, stricken with Alzheimer’s as he was, always amazed me with his ongoing ability to recall the lyrics of old songs. Music from the television or radio would often strike a happy chord for him and he would sing out the lyrics with gusto, as if he wrote the words himself.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology & Psychiatry of Columbia University, wrote that he has worked in a hospital and several old age homes where, although many patients had Alzheimer’s or other dementia related diseases he still discovered that, “. . . all of them, without exception, responded to music.”

He believes these patients have some of their personal memories “embedded in amber,” in a manner of speaking. Things such as music can draw out some of these locked whispers from the past.

There is a part of the brain called the “Parietal Lobe” which responds to creative activities like art and music. The visual stimulation of viewing something artistically created can promote communication. Somehow, as if the piece of art is speaking directly to them, thoughts begin to generate. The patient may not be completely accurate in describing what they’re seeing, but if it enhances conversation, there is something positive here.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York was one of the first to start a project for people with Alzheimer’s. They put together a small collection of art that is accessible to a group of patients one day a month. Together they view a sampling of, for instance, Frederic Remington’s work and then a different artist the following month. By keeping the collection small the patient refrains from becoming overwhelmed. The curator then engages the group with questions such as, “What do you think of the colors?” or “What do you make of this image?” The reports have contained surprising depths of observation coming from the patients.

I believe this type of therapy is healthy for Alzheimer’s patients to attend unless the trip becomes too unsettling for them. Anything that promotes conversation or energizes the mind, helping to give a richer quality of life, is extremely encouraging.

My dad had a deep love for fine art throughout his life and became a certified art appraiser. He loved to show off a painting that he owned and tell the history of the artist, when the picture originated, etc. One day, about halfway through his battle with Alzheimer’s. I heard a woman asking him what he knew about a certain oil painting he owned. He knew exactly what region the landscape was painted from; even the right era! But when it came to the artist he struggled and then told her, “Barnes and Noble painted this.” The woman stared at me quizzically. I just gave her a gentle nod, as to say, “please, just let him continue.” He may have not remembered all the correct details, but the man loved to shoot the breeze about his paintings.

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