Creativity and Dementia

Art Programs, Groups for Older Adults with Dementia

By Shelley Klammer | Posted 6/19/12 | Updated 11/16/23

I was delighted to find out that one of the members of my morning art group had been an accomplished sculptor in her life. Her room was filled with abstract wood and soapstone carvings. She could draw and paint like Van Gogh.

However, each new art session, she forgot that she was an artist. After I convinced to begin, and told her that she was indeed a very good artist, she was just as incredulous as I was about the vigorous, swirling drawings and paintings that emerged under her capable hand. She was utterly smitten with her efforts. This pride and surprise is common for artists with dementia. There is nothing that tickles me more than when an artist looks at their work in amazement and exclaims, "I did that?" Each viewing is a brand new experience.

Art by Marius BernonAnother fellow who readily agreed to attend my Friday morning art group displayed no interest in drawing or painting. He did however expand my idea of what art for people with dementia could be. When I asked him to join me, he always nodded in silent affirmation. He pulled his tiny frame out of his easy chair, eager to be part of the group. He did not ever speak one word to me, but he inspired me to suggest collage to the participants who did not want to draw or paint.

Each week I brought in National Geographic magazines and small pairs of scissors for those who claimed that they were not artistic. This particular non-verbal fellow delighted in the magazines, but instead of cutting out images, he picked up a pencil crayon and underlined the words that he liked. He remained faithfully engaged in his task for the entire hour and a half, using different colors to emphasize different words.

Another member of my morning art group was an accomplished illustrator in the 1940s. She told me that whenever she designed an ad for woman's lingerie for a big department store, the customers would line up around the block to purchase what she had illustrated. After she married, she quit her position. The department store manager so liked her work, he tracked her down and begged her to return to her job. She proudly told me the same story each week. In my art group, with great absorption, she reproduced the fruit and flower still life arrangements in a precise and accomplished manner.

Another participant with advanced dementia, the former owner of a flower shop, vehemently resisted conforming to the group themes and project suggestions. At times she was quite volatile with her temper, and would let me know loudly that she did not like drawing. Yet with a paintbrush in hand, she would happily paint abstract watercolors for the entire class; all the while talking to herself in sentences that made sense only to her.

Each art group has its own unique personality as a whole. I relish the memories of all the art groups that I have facilitated over the years. Each group has its own unique way of working together in a way that can never be repeated. Picture for example, the art group I have just described. One mild man is studiously underlining words in his magazine. Beside him, a woman is speaking to herself in continuous sentences as she paints. Somehow they seem to balance each other out. The two female artists of the group are encouraging and admiring one another's work with great enthusiasm. One or two new or rotating members join in each week to add variety to the group. All are engaged in their creative process.

In contrast, I found it challenging to encourage my afternoon art group of cognitively well seniors to keep on painting week after week, as they were often critical of their efforts. With my limited range of art materials I could not really offer a sophisticated approach to art techniques. On our budget, we had the bare basics: pencil crayons to draw with, and watercolors to paint with. It was hard to find an "open door" to their creativity, because they all wanted to create “good art.” Most people have a hard time letting go of control in the artistic process, for fear of being criticized.

Seniors, who were criticized for their artistic efforts in childhood, will never attempt to make art again. When young people are told they are not artistic, they will likely retain such offhand criticism as the God’s truth well into their old age. The paradoxical advantage of the onset of dementia is that older adults are often open again to new ideas and activities.

As the brain begins to decline in the various lobes, paradoxically, creativity often opens up. Creativity can naturally take over the habitual mental limitations as the ego structure begins to lose its stronghold. In many ways I prefer working with populations that are cognitively "impaired", such as those with the various dementias, because there is an open door to create from that is not influenced by the past.

In fascinating ways, as the brain declines in its normal functioning, people can become creative for the first time in their lives. Often artists with dementia forget that they once believed they did not know how to draw or paint. It often seems as though the "censorship button" in their brain has been turned off, and it becomes easier to create freely. I often envy a painter with dementia's ability to choose unconventional colors and shadings for their paintings. The purple sky and orange grass in their compositions surprise me. I often wonder, "Why didn't I think of that?"

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