Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ Art Together program offers accessible and inclusive docent-led tours of the museum. The Art Together program has tours dedicated to guests with dementia or Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

Whether it’s singing or dancing, painting or crafting ceramics, the beauty of art trancends our misunderstandings and places us all on a more even playing ground with plenty of room for appreciation. 

Inside Perspective

Aspects of art come almost naturally to everyone. 

“Our brains create art. Artists translate images from their mind’s eye — or mind’s ear in the case of music — and through complex electrical and chemical communication between brain cells and interconnections with various parts of the brain involved in perception, planning, fine motor movement… translate their visions into tangible creations,” Kristin Bosc, a clinical neuropsychologist with Washington Regional Senior Health Clinic, said. “The reverse is also true — art creates brains.”

Mike Kemp
The S-TAP meetings offer those at risk or previously diagnosed with dementia or related diseases the opportunity to socialize along with the added benefit of working their fine and gross motor skills, cognition and some upper and lower body movement.

According to Bosc, art has long been used in researching the development of children, with findings showing that “exposure to fine arts, music and other creative endeavors creates denser neural networks and enhances brain development.”

But what has come to light in recent years is that brains are constantly developing. “An aging brain is a developing brain, and we can change the structure and functioning of our brains to not only maintain but grow our abilities throughout our lifespan.”

The Doing is Important

When it comes to aging loved ones, engaging with or practicing art doesn’t have to begin on the level of Picasso. 

“With older people, and when you’re talking about caregiving, that’s where arts and crafts come in. You have this sense of making a product that you made with your hands, and you get satisfaction from that,” said Kelly Hartwick, a registered occupational therapist with the University of Central Arkansas’ Department of Occupational Therapy.

Luckily, occupational therapy and the arts go hand-in-hand. 

“Crafts adopt the historical-anthropological approach to the development of activities in that occupational therapists can examine the human experience and analyze what is unique to a particular cultural group,” Hartwick said. “The therapeutic applications of crafts are discussed in relation to physical dysfunction, mental health, pediatrics and geriatrics within occupational therapy.”

Mike Kemp
University of Central Arkansas Occupational Therapy Department students work with local patients, crafting magazine collages and planting succulents. In the previous weeks, patients had handmade and painted their ceramic pots. These activities “address both the cognitive and physical aspects of the person,” said Hartwick.

Should an aging person need to meet with an occupational therapist, the arts and crafts activities can be graded up or down to fit the patient’s functional level, which helps address both cognitive and physical aspects of the person, according to Hartwick.

Participating in arts and crafts can also be beneficial for the caregiver. 

“The good thing for our caregivers with that [arts and crafts] is it gives them ideas of what to do with their loved one. A dementia client that has no activity during the day and cannot recall things is a frustrated person,” said Brandy Pate, a registered occupational therapist and clinical instructor with UCA. “When they’re engaged and they’re participating, using their mind and using a creative outlet, [art programs] can be life-changing.”

Not only can a completed art piece give an aging person a sense of satisfaction and independence, but it can also give the caregiver mind a sense of rest. With UCA’s S-TAP program (Student-led Therapeutic Activity Program), caregivers can bring their loved one to a free weekly program, giving them the opportunity for activities and socialization. Plus, the program gives students experience in their field and caregivers the chance to focus a little on their personal needs.

Hitting the Right Notes

Art doesn’t just live at home or in dedicated local groups; it exists, and thrives, in care facilities as well. 

At StoneBridge Senior Living in Pocahontas, it just looks a little different. 

Kay McFall, StoneBridge’s Life Enrichment Coordinator, ensures residents have plenty of creative outlets, from pumpkin painting in the fall to photography. But music is what gets the group most excited.

Mike Kemp

“Often seniors begin to feel isolated and like they aren’t able to participate in many of the activities they were able to do in their younger years. Being reintroduced to arts and crafts can help them become more confident in their abilities and open their mind to new interests and hobbies that they have not thought were possible.” — Brandy Pate, occupational therapist and clinical instructor with the University of Central Arkansas

“The music is probably our main focus for the benefit of our residents because a lot of them are not able to actually do anything physically with art [or] with their hands. We try to create as much as we can, but it’s hard for them,” McFall said. “But [with] the music, we try to go back to memories. We have a lot of dementia patients, and we try to bring happiness through familiar things.”

Music is a daily indulgence at StoneBridge. With three pianos in-house, residents can tickle the ivories whenever they get the urge, and whether they’re a prodigy or not, the sound is embraced. Plus, every day, either before lunch or dinner, everyone gathers around to sing and request their favorite tunes. 

McFall also coordinates with local theaters and churches to bring musicals, dancers and choirs in for the residents to enjoy.

“Anybody I can get to lift their spirits, and music seems to be the tool that lifts them,” McFall said. “If they can go back to memories and connect with the past and find joy, that gives them a purpose.”