Seniors and Art: A Creative Approach to Improving Our Cognitive Health

Struggling to communicate with loved ones or feeling a special memory slip away can be frustrating, if not devastating, for a senior with early-onset dementia or other cognitive issues. If an older adult is unable to clearly express their thoughts and emotions, they can quickly sink into a depression.

However, with a paintbrush in hand and a watercolor palette before them, older adults from across St. Louis are discovering creative ways to reduce the effects of cognitive decline. Through art programs at senior living facilities, like those offered by the professional artists of Artfully Aging, seniors are telling their stories and widening their social circles.

“Studies have shown that when seniors have a creative outlet, they experience better health outcomes, are more relaxed, require fewer medications, and boost their mental health,” said Mary Beth Flynn, founder of Artfully Aging and a therapeutic art specialist.

Why a paintbrush is a key therapy tool

In many cases, dementia first affects the front temporal lobes of the brain, and if that nerve damage is localized on the left side—the region where we produce and comprehend language—it alters our ability to verbalize and impacts our behavior. We struggle to organize our words logically or lose our train of thought.

On the other hand, art and music engage those regions unaffected or minimally affected by the disease, allowing seniors to communicate in unexpected ways. Seniors who attend art classes have been found to exhibit enhanced clarity, recall cherished memories, and feel greater control over their environment. Not to mention, they also strengthen their fine motor skills and improve their hand-brain coordination. Said one researcher with the University of California, “While brains inevitably age, creative abilities do not necessarily deteriorate. Actually, the aging brain responds well to art by allowing the brain’s two hemispheres to work more in tandem.”

Like the art teachers that you may remember from your younger years, Flynn guides her art class with a prompt—for instance, a watercolor landscape or still life she encourages her students to recreate. But in her class, the art itself is just the vehicle to help seniors communicate. During the hour together, Flynn incorporates sensory and imagery exercises to engage all areas of the brain. For instance, if the class paints a wintertime scene, they may sing holiday songs from their youth, imagine the sounds and smells as they crunch through the snow, and picture who they are taking a walk with.

“That’s where the entire project dovetails,” Flynn says. “Seniors forget about their worries, and just enjoy the experience and the memories art brings up. I always tell them, the more they relax and enjoy themselves, the more beautiful their painting will be. And it’s really true—every painting looks different depending on each person’s experience, and each one is beautiful. It’s just amazing.”

“Plus,” she adds, “Seniors really feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they see what they’ve painted. They can’t wait to bring out their new works to show their families at each visit.”

Artfully Aging currently works with senior communities in the St. Louis region, Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois, although classes are temporarily on hold due to COVID-19. In the meantime, Flynn is also developing virtual senior art programs and instructional videos for seniors receiving home health services and the senior community at large, which will be available soon through her website. For more information, visit www.artfullyaging.com.

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