By Lauren Mahakian. Originally published in “The Alzheimer’s Whisperer” in PV News – 10-8-2020

At the beginning of 2020, I was excitedly working on a new venture to help those with memory impairments called, “LIVE LOVE ART.” It was to launch in April 2020—and then COVID-19 hit! My team nonetheless quickly implemented the program at my memory care homes and with my in-home care clients with great success. Since we largely remain in a state of isolation, I thought I’d share some of these ideas in hopes they are useful to you.

Dementia robs people of their ability to remember things, but often leaves long-term memory intact. Music is a well-known tool to tap into this memory, and that alone can help with self-esteem and stimulate or reinforce a sense of purpose. My hope was to use many art forms that my clients can resonate with—specifically art, film, and of course music—to tap into memory in new ways.

Think of watching films as a way to blend modern technology with classics produced before there was streaming, DVDs, or even VHS tape. Your loved ones likely attended movies in theaters, which are literally larger-than-life experiences. They were immersive and they were engaging. Most of all they were memorable. If your loved one speaks of old films or movie stars, see if you can locate films they were in. If not, do a little research to find who were stars when your loved one was between the ages of 15 and 35. There is no exact age, we are trying to identify films in theaters they were likely to have seen. If you have a cable subscription, check Turner Classic Movies. If not, see what Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming service have. The key to using films is to make them interactive.

Watch the film with your loved one. Never use the film as a babysitter. If they don’t resonate with a film, try another until you find one they love. Be sure to show your loved one the respect they’re due. If they prefer to watch in silence, join them silently while sharing popcorn. However, most will be expressive if they find something interesting. Let them talk or express themselves as they are able and ask open-ended questions, like where they saw the film or who they were with.

Painting allows those with a memory impairment to freely express themselves, which will often bring a smile faster than struggling to find words they’ve forgotten. At first, she may not want to participate or perhaps is unable to talk, but she can still paint something that is beautiful and meaningful. Even those who are not artistic find that painting is an outlet for them to communicate. Painting, drawing, and coloring are all meaningful artistic expressions that can also help stimulate sense of purpose.

I saved music for last because I’ve written about its power before. It should be one of the first things you try to engage with your loved one if ever you are struggling. Music is universal. Listening to music that your loved one enjoyed when they were younger has been shown repeatedly to revive memories that we thought were long-lost. Those who can no longer speak, or have difficulty moving, can still enjoy listening to music as a part of daily caregiving. Recalling music from the past can also help revive a sense of identity for someone with dementia and help to reconnect with family members.
In addition to listening to music, especially by artists and songs from the past, you can also try making music together, or sing along with your loved one. A simple technique is drumming. You don’t need a loud or expensive drum; almost anything will do, from pots and pans with a wooden spoon to bongo drums or a simple tambourine. It can help your loved one find a way to engage with you and the music.

In general, the arts—film, drawing and painting, or music—can help to lessen anxiety and improve mood. Sleep improves in almost all cases, and it can add to sense of purpose when it seems that hope is otherwise lost.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified care manager and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified dementia practitioner and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information

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