Use Creativity to Reduce Alzheimer’s Agitation

Use Creativity to Reduce Alzheimer's Agitation

Creativity as a Tool to Ease Agitation in Alzheimer’s Patients

Agitation is a distressing symptom often experienced by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. It can be challenging to find effective ways to bring calm to your loved one, especially as the disease progresses. However, understanding that this behavior is a form of communication, triggered by underlying discomforts and basic needs, can help us think outside the box and explore alternative solutions.

According to Sam Fazio, PhD, senior director of quality care and psychosocial research at the Alzheimer’s Association, the person living with dementia may be feeling uncomfortable, confused, bored, anxious, or have basic needs like hunger, thirst, or the need to use the bathroom. As their ability to communicate thoughts and feelings diminishes, they may act out in unexpected ways. It is crucial to approach these situations with empathy and creative solutions.

Unlocking the Power of Creativity

While Alzheimer’s disease impairs thinking, memory, and communication skills, it does not necessarily diminish creativity, imagination, and emotions. Incorporating art, music, or other favorite activities can have multiple benefits for individuals with dementia. Fazio suggests that these creative outlets can help alleviate anxiety, agitation, and overall mood, keep the brain engaged, provide social engagement, and lessen feelings of isolation.

The Healing Power of Music

Music can have a profound impact on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, awakening memories and soothing agitated emotions. Tina Baxter, a nurse practitioner who has worked extensively with Alzheimer’s patients, witnessed firsthand the transformative effect of music. Baxter recounts the story of her own father, who had memory loss and dementia towards the end of his life.

As Baxter and her family attended a dinner theater production of “The Sound of Music,” her father’s military background and memories of living in Germany were triggered. “You could see the synapses firing,” Baxter explains. “The music was going; he was so engaged with it. He loved it completely, and his appetite was humongous!” It was like a switch had been flipped, and her father reminisced about his time in Germany, animated and reminiscent of his old self again.

The Science Behind Music Therapy

The American Music Therapy Association explains that music therapy cannot reverse the loss of brain function caused by Alzheimer’s disease. However, it can make the most out of what remains. Music is processed throughout the entire brain, allowing areas yet untouched by the disease to “understand” and respond to it. Additionally, music can awaken special pathways within the diseased brain that may otherwise remain dormant, enhancing brain function and reducing symptoms of agitation.

Baxter shares an experience with a male dementia patient who refused to sit still for a physical exam. In a moment of inspiration, she started dancing with him, and they danced down the hall together. This unexpected interaction allowed Baxter to perform the exam while the patient enjoyed the movement and music. It was a successful example of how music and dance can engage individuals with dementia, reducing agitation and facilitating connection.

Painting for Peace and Expression

Art can be particularly helpful for individuals who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. As language progressively fades, the right-sided visual creativity can emerge even stronger. Liban Saleh, PhD, founder and CEO of CareCompare, an esteemed home health care service in the United Kingdom, has witnessed the power of artistic engagement in Alzheimer’s patients.

Saleh discovered that even the most restless and irritable patients found peace and stillness when provided with a paintbrush. Engaging in activities like collage-making, painting, or using music-making apps can reignite a sense of purpose and connection for those living with Alzheimer’s disease. Saleh personally observed the positive impact these creative outlets had on his own grandfather’s struggle with the disease, improving spatial awareness, brain function, and providing a sense of satisfaction.

Tips for Incorporating Creativity at Home

To maximize the benefits of creativity for your loved one with Alzheimer’s, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Find songs in the key of their life: Play songs from their youth, as they may trigger long-term happy memories. Consult with your loved one or their friends to discover their favorite music from their teenage years or early adulthood.
  2. Hit the right notes: Pay attention to their emotional response to music. Encourage them to clap, sway, or dance to the beat. If certain songs or genres appear to agitate them, seek out new selections that may provide a more soothing experience.
  3. Use sounds that soothe: Identify specific songs or soothing music that helps to calm your loved one when they are anxious or agitated. Playing these songs in those moments can serve as a helpful distraction.

In terms of artistic endeavors:

  1. Give them the tools: Offer nontoxic paints, brushes, or other necessary supplies for their chosen artistic activity. Provide guidance on how to use the materials, whether it’s painting, sculpting with clay, or engaging in other creative projects.
  2. Praise the process, not the project: Recognize that the final outcome of their artistic pursuits may not resemble a masterpiece, but it’s the act of creating that holds the most value. Compliment their choices of colors, textures, and other artistic elements.
  3. Make it a conversation starter: Engage in conversations about their artwork. Ask questions about the subject matter, such as why they painted a particular animal or object. Their responses may reveal additional memories or experiences worth exploring.

Keys to Creative Success

To successfully utilize creativity as a therapeutic tool for individuals with Alzheimer’s, it is essential to tailor activities to their specific interests and backgrounds. For instance, if your loved one spent countless hours in their garden during their healthier years, consider integrating horticulture therapy, as recent studies suggest it helps reduce agitation. By meeting individuals with dementia where they are and stimulating their previous passions, we can provide them with purpose and joy.

Baxter fondly recalls her father’s final days in hospice, where music played a significant role in providing him with a sense of calm and happiness. As a volunteer from their church sang to him, she witnessed a peaceful smile on her father’s face, creating a poignant memory.

In conclusion, incorporating creativity, such as music and art, can significantly benefit individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. These activities unlock emotions, memories, and foster connection. By embracing alternative approaches, we can enhance the quality of life for those with dementia, providing them with comfort and moments of joy.