Art: Entertainment or Therapy?

Pablo Picasso once said, “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” In removing such “dust,” especially from the lives of those undergoing cognitive decline, art becomes more than just an aesthetically pleasing activity meant to keep the elderly occupied. Instead, art functions as a powerful source of physical and mental well-being, as well as cognitive stimulation.

It is well known that art assists in reducing stress, increasing self-image and self-reflection, altering behavioral patterns, and normalizing physiological symptoms, including heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Less known however, are its neural effects in the aging and degenerative process. In patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, a lack of blood flow to the brain causes neuronal deterioration and prevents proper cognitive function. Art therapy thus serves as a method of cognitive stimulation, awakening new pathways in the brain and many of those that have become dormant. In creating stronger or more efficient neural pathways, the patient is able to compensate for the deterioration caused by aging or dementia.

Art can also be used as a means of communication and socialization for individuals who have lost function in the language center of their brains. Art not only becomes an aesthetically pleasing form of entertainment, but also functions as a mode of self-expression. As the brain possesses two cerebral hemispheres, deterioration due to aging in one hemisphere does not necessarily reduce creative ability in the other hemisphere. Individuals are thus able to express themselves artistically, as disease limits their means of verbal expression. Additionally, patients utilize art to interact and socialize with other individuals, whether it be family members or other cognitively impaired individuals. A grandson is finally able to communicate with his grandparent after many years of complete silence in expression.

As increased socialization occurs and individuals produce meaningful pieces of artwork, a sense of purpose and empowerment is restored to the elderly individual. Such purpose enables the individual to overcome Erik Erikson’s eighth stage of cognitive development, the struggle between ego integrity and despair. As individuals age, they tend to explore and contemplate their accomplishments. If they view they lives are unproductive and unaccomplished, they develop despair, depression, and hopelessness. However, if they consider their lives as a success, accomplishing life goals and feeling a sense of purpose, they are able to develop integrity and wisdom. In doing so, they can accept death without fear, knowing their life was full and complete. Art therapy enables patients to reach this sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. In communicating with their family members, producing substantial and meaningful pieces of artwork, and feeling a sense of accomplishment, the elderly and cognitively impaired attain healthier physical and mental well-being. The “dust of everyday life” is finally washed away.