Alzheimer’s Disease was discovered in 1906, but more than a century later we’re not much closer to being able to cure it or even effectively treat it.
But perhaps part of the problem is that we’re so intent on treating the cause rather than the symptoms. It’s true that most of the time, it makes more sense to treat the underlying cause. If the disease could be cured completely, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the symptoms. However, since Alzheimer’s is a disease of the elderly, it may be wise to put more effort into ensuring comfortable and safe final years for Alzheimer’s sufferers than into searching for a real cure. Too many people are suffering too much today because we can’t find the cure fast enough. While we wait, it’s time to do something about the symptoms.
In that spirit, new studies are being done on how to improve the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients. And some surprising results have surfaced. Some patients, like those participating in the HenPower program, find an increased zest for life when they have the companionship and responsibility of a pet. Others connect to memory through poetry and language. And still others find an outlet in viewing and discussing art.
In 2015, a study was conducted at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia. Dr. Gail Kenning, PhD, conducted the study, called “Arts engagement for people with dementia.” 21 dementia patients were shown several selected art pieces and had a chance to talk about them. These patients, along with their families and caregivers, were asked to complete a survey about their experiences, and their answers demonstrated to Dr. Kenning that the event helped patients feel more normal, relaxed, and supported.
Through her research, Dr. Kenning has shown that the “consciousness and emotions” of Alzheimer’s patients remain even when their memories are gone. They can be happy even without remembering their pasts. She says:
This study did not focus on memory, and whether people living with dementia remembered their engagement with art, but recognised the positive impact of ‘in the moment’ pleasure of experiencing art and of feeling valued, supported, acknowledged, and challenged. This experience of pleasure impacted people with dementia as well as carers and family members.
The Art Gallery NSW has an entire series of 90-minute art events meant specifically for Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers. The series offers “an opportunity for meaningful discussion and active engagement” for a group of people whose opinions are not often asked and whose minds are not always appropriately valued and challenged. It adds feelings of security, purpose, camaraderie, and relaxation to their difficult lives.
Since loneliness is one of the most significant issues Alzheimer’s patients face, just the fact that they get to get out and talk to people makes this type of event more than worth it for those suffering from the disease.
Some of the factors that impacted how positive or negative a patient’s experience was can also be applied to other areas of a person’s life. For instance, noise level, the location of available seating, and the travel experience to and from the gallery influenced how well people responded to the art experience.
This is encouraging, because it means that simple solutions such as changing room temperature, music volume, or the amount of time patients spend interacting with other people could have a significant impact on their overall happiness and well-being. We may not have a cure yet, but let’s not forget to be thankful for the small ways we can make a difference.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?