A New Language: Art as communication for those with Dementia

Many debilitating diseases can affect our ability to communicate from dementia to stroke to Parkinson’s. While the instinct may be to withdraw, many people are finding a new language in a variety of arts. Non-verbal communication that incorporates our senses, emotions, intuition, and sense of play can be a lifeline that honors the individual’s capacity to create. Sound Options is sharing a few local resources tailored for aging loved ones to get the creative juice flowing.   

From New York’s Museum of Modern Art to Seattle’s Frye Museum, art programs are springing up around the country with a revolutionary new focus on individuals living with Dementia. The Frye Museum in Seattle created a program called “here:now” that includes gallery tours and art making classes for individuals living with dementia along with their caregivers or family. According to Dr. Patricia Baines, a psychologist and art therapist, “Words slide away, but images/content may transcend memory loss. Experiencing art can be a journey of finding a new way to speak and make meaning…It can be a vehicle for joy.”

One of the great aspects of art is its accessibility. If your loved one is unable to go on an outing to the museum, the experience can be adapted within the home. At any public library there are many large beautiful books on art, gardening, architecture, photography, and more. The simple questions, “What do you see?”, or “What does this make you feel?” can be powerful. Creating an environment of validation where there is no wrong answer is crucial for engaging the imagination and sense of play during the activity. When creating opportunities for art making for a loved one with dementia it is important to create a present moment activity that is not dependent on memory. What captures their attention is beautiful now. According to Dr. Patricia Baines, “Creative expression is a basic human need and maintains our sense of well-bring.” Ask your loved one how they like to create and be sure to affirm their work. It is always about the process of exploration, not the end product. Don’t be afraid to explore and try out a few different mediums, especially if your loved one doesn’t have experience with art making.

Some important things to play with include:

  • Texture: clay, paper, fabric
  • Color: paints, watercolors, colored pencils
  • Images: collage, photography, scrapbooking    

“Communication and words are where the disease of dementia really reveals itself”, says Anne Basting, Creator of the non-profit TimeSlips. “People learn to mistrust their words and even their own voice.” She created a community activity that is redefining the relationship people with dementia have with words. It has been featured on NPR, The Today Show and many newspapers. Watching the activity, you would see the leader holding up a photo and inviting a group of seniors with dementia to make up a story about the subject of the photo. They begin to ask the group questions about the person in the photo such as, “What might this person’s name be? Where are they going? Do they have a family? What is their life like? What is the person feeling/ thinking? What do they do for a living? What are they going to do later? Through group storytelling individuals with the disease are able to focus on the freeing presence of imagination instead of a frustrating lack of memories. This social activity is a tool to usher in joy, humor, connection, and a sense of play into the lives of seniors. The leader validates everything that is being said and records all the details of the corporate story on a large piece of paper. There is special joy in the room when their comments are reflected back to them in a positive way. “In this activity people with dementia are allowed to be creative and regain trust in their ability to communicate and make meaning”, said Anne Basting. To see a live demonstration of the activity click here.  For more information about the activity and how you can use it with your loved one visit www.TimeSlips.org .  


Regardless of what art projects you explore, the important things to remember is that anyone can do it, the tools are inside of each person. The key is to tailor the activities to let their expression come to life.  

Community Resources for Senior Art Activities:

Published on March 29, 2013.