On a Tuesday afternoon, I was going around the halls of an assisted living community inviting people to a program I was about to lead. There was a gentleman there who I always looked forward to saying hi to, knowing quite frequently he would turn down my invitation but enjoyed a brief visit. On this particular afternoon, as I knocked on his door and saw him sitting in his chair, I could see he was waking up from a nap. He looked distressed as I greeted him. The world I walked into that afternoon was that of a battlefield. This man, who had dementia, was reliving his time at war. I could see the trauma in his eyes, the fear in his hands.
At a jewelry store in town, I met a woman whose mother had dementia. Once she learned that I worked with this population she shared moments when her mom would go off into these worlds and she didn’t know what to do. She learned not to fight her mother, but she no longer felt she could connect with her mom whom she loved deeply. She could feel their lives separating.
While leaving a skilled care community I stopped to talk with a family member of a resident who recently passed away after living with dementia for several years. She shared with me no longer knew who she was and struggled to see life without spending each day visiting mom. She feared what daily life would become and the impact this would have on her relationships.
These are common stories one might hear when living with dementia.
We all possess the ability to enter into the world of someone with dementia. We all are able to sit and listen to the stories we share with each other. We all are capable of walking with another person through their struggles. This takes no special skill, no extra training, no letters behind our name. But, what would the impact be like if we invited someone with a little extra training and skills into the picture? What if we invited a Creative Arts Therapist to take a seat on our care team, joining the geriatricians, general practice doctors, elder law attorneys, financial advisors, social workers, pharmacists, nurses, priests or other religious, neurologists, and a selection of family members?
This week is Creative Arts Therapies week. It is a week where all of the fields within the Creative Art Therapies take extra time to promote the work they do in our community and share with us the role they might play in our lives. This includes Music Therapists, Art Therapists, Drama Therapists, Dance/Movement Therapists. They are individuals with special training to combine the already known power of the arts with a skillfully directed therapeutic practice. Their current role in dementia care is often that of Glorified Life Enrichment Specialist, and that may be at times the role they play, but it can be greater than that. They can sit with those who might be reliving a trauma, are struggling with the loss of a husband or their home, a diagnosis. They can support the amazing artist that come into our communities to lead programs based on the visual, performing and written arts. They can show us how to enter the world of our loved ones with dementia. They can aid us in healing during and after our dementia journey. And, they can be the bridge between the medical and non-medical side of caregiving.
Each field within the creative arts therapies can play a special role in our care, for we each have our own connection to one specific art form over another. They can partner with artists, physical therapists, nurses, and doctors to help increase the quality of care and daily living. Frequently I hear concerns about inviting arts therapist into the picture, they say they already have artist providing art therapy yet these individuals frequently are not art therapists, but an artist using the arts in a therapeutic way. (There is a difference that would be a conversation for another time.) Or they feel that the world the of our care communities is already too medicalized and having a creative arts therapist involved would be adding to the medical world. While I agree that we don’t need a creative arts therapist to be able to benefit from the arts and that our care communities lean too far into the medical realm there is still a seat at the table for these specific fields. What a creative arts therapist provides is not more of the same, but something that can partner with programs and with individuals that might need more than the basic elements of the arts. They can add a depth to the care provided. A creative arts therapist can help the families learn how to communicate and transition into this new chapter of the relationship with their loved one, and, once the time has come, help them heal and rediscover their own life once the role of caregiver has been taken away. They can sit with our care community staff and help them navigate their job and minimize the burnout and depression that comes from working with loss day in and day out.
Use the arts with your loved one and for yourself. Find moments of joy, creativity, and satisfaction and growth through the arts, then I invite you to think about the creative arts therapies. Consider opening up a spot on the care team for a Creative Arts Therapist both for your loved one and for yourself. You might be amazed at how they can help you during this time and how we have been limiting the impact they can have on those living with dementia. What has been shared above is just a peek into what is possible.
To learn more about the Creative Arts Therapies and to find a Creative Arts Therapist in your area (credentials to look for):
Drama Therapy (RDT or RDT-BCT)
Music Therapy (MT-BC)
Art Therapy (ATR or ATR-BC)
Dance Therapy (R-DMT-BC-DMT)