When I think about art, I think of colour and exuberant life, so it’s no wonder that drawing, painting or crafting brighten so many older people’s lives. As lives narrow and dementia or frailty make many people inactive, visual art can become a vital stimulus. And where language fails, line and colour can become a new language, a way to communicate, to connect with others or to express a view of the world, even as that world shrinks. Since long-term memory may remain, painting or drawing could revive that memory and allow people to relive earlier parts of their lives. In music, remembering lyrics or notes can be difficult for people with dementia, so that improvisation is more practicable. Art always allows people that freedom to improvise, to experiment with colour and form.
Beyond Words is an arts initiative for care home residents living with dementia run by Art Therapy4All, a Community Interest Company or CIC which works to bring art therapy to a wider community. Art Therapy4All organizes events and subsidised art therapy sessions with a range of participants, from children and young people to the elderly. The Beyond Words project, which began in 2016 runs in 10 care homes across London, offering regular art therapy sessions for groups of up to 8 participants per week. Therapists use the SPECAL method developed by the Contented Dementia Trust as a communication tool with the dementia patients. Art Therapy4All also arranges exhibitions of artwork, which aim to facilitate understanding of the healing power of art. Find out more at:
I think the online exhibition (which you can see following the link) really highlights how participants all brought their own experiences of life and of art to the Beyond Words project sessions. While they may all have dementia, they all still came with different perspectives and their artwork reflects this, from Jean’s Sunburst pattern and Floral tiles to other participants’ landscapes (like Anne’s Painted landscape with mouse) and abstracts.
Obviously it is important to recognise that older age can make taking part in art or craft activities more difficult. Sight loss, far more common in older people, can either limit participation or make artwork impossible. People’s motor skills may decline, so that they find it difficult to hold a brush or pen. Conditions like arthritis or stroke can contribute to this. And yet art is known to be helpful for people recovering from a stroke. It can improve their physical condition as well as easing depression, as the charity Paintings In Hospitals reports.Some aphasia groups (for people with speech difficulties) use drawing and other art forms as an alternative way to communicate and share or express thoughts.
Maybe the most striking outcome of Age UK’s research for their Index of Wellbeing in Later Life was the conclusion that it was creative participation which contributes most directly to older people’s wellbeing, out of the 40 factors they assessed. This only highlights how very important it is to go on widening opportunities for older people to take part in visual arts and craft, and to explore and share the many specific yet diverse ways older people create in different circumstances.