One of the greatest fears of people who are suffering from developing dementia is that they will one day lose the ability to communicate; and sadly, many of them do. This is because dementia has profoundly debilitating effects on the parts of the brain that deal with communication, words, and memory. However, as scientists are discovering, the brain is almost aggressively flexible and able to find ways to make connections even when one area is failing.
One of the most interesting discoveries of the last few years; that even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s or other dementia are still quite capable of producing art and enjoying art produced by others. The area of the brain that deals with art may not ever spontaneously begin processing language or recording memories, but it absolutely can provide engagement, interaction, positive emotions, and it can even boost self-esteem.
A Wordless Vocabulary
At its deeper levels, the brain does not think in words; most of a brain’s function is far too fast, too interconnected, and too spontaneous to be put into something as structured and sequential as words. However, the drive to communicate is a fundamental element of even those deeper parts of the brain, and someone with profound dementia can and will find some way to share an experience with another human.
With a paintbrush, a drum, or even a camera, that kind of connection can be made even if no words are able to attach. That kind of sociality, the kind that is normally completely stolen by advanced dementia, is an enormous boost to the quality of life of someone who is otherwise unable to share an experience with their loved ones.
Music and the Melodies of the Mind
The auditory system of the brain is very closely connected with the limbic system; the area where emotions are generated and where long-term memories are processed. Perhaps because of this intimate connection, scientists across Europe and America are realizing that music offers one of the better chances to make genuine progress in the fight against dementia.
Dozens of clinical studies have shown that playing familiar and likable music to a dementia patient can reduce depression, reduce agitation, increase sociability, increase movement, and improve cognitive ability. In a few very moving stories, patients that had not been able to speak for years were able to sing along with favorite songs from decades ago.
Artistic Skill Hidden In Neurons outside the Brain
Many people do not realize this, but an enormous proportion of the body’s neurons are not located in the brain. There are nearly as many in the intestines (theorized by some to be the source of ‘gut feelings’) and there is also a very significant amount in the spinal cord. It is that latter group that store what we call ‘muscle memory’; the physical actions that go along with skills.
Artistic skills like instrument playing, drawing, and similar physical arts are not ‘stored’ in the brain; they are kept in the spinal cord, which makes them ‘dementia-proof.’ Even someone with absolute amnesia (no ability to create new memories or retrieve old ones) can still create truly inspired art and use that art to communicate effectively with themselves as well as with others.
The Truly Important Part
While all of the brain science behind these phenomena is fascinating and valuable, it is far more important in practical terms to point out that anyone can do this. Yes, there are complications, and yes, there are people who are licensed art therapists and music therapists who can provide a much greater ability to connect with a dementia patient using the arts.
So when you cut to the chase, the connection happens in their brain; your job then is to approach them in a way that makes them comfortable with the idea of art. Find out what songs they used to love, and be there to attend to them as they listen.
Be the first one to make a genuinely ridiculous attempt at painting the scene outside their bedroom window. Sit contentedly and do not push them to verbalize their feelings about a beautiful piece of art. Let their brain make what connections it will, and be ready to accept that in many cases, no connection will be made.
When a loved one has dementia, the hardest part is feeling like you are losing them. Therefore, finding a way to connect on any level has incredible benefits for both of you. Art and music are not always effective; but for many, it is the best chance science has discovered.
This Valentine’s Day, sit down with your aging loved one and play a golden oldie or three on your MP3 player. You might just win a smile and help establish connections that would not otherwise happen.