Facing Alzheimer's: Art Therapy for Alzheimer's

By Sean Corcoran

June 23, 2011

Music therapist Brianna LePage works with Alzheimer's patients at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. (Sean Corcoran/WGBH)

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — Looking at paintings in a museum or singing songs around a piano is not going to stop Alzheimer's as it steals away memories and personality. But around the country, art and music therapy programs are becoming more common for people with memory impairment. These sessions are not about curing the disease. They're about human interaction.

"Now, do you know what show that was from? Anybody know?" Brianna LePage, a Berkeley College of Music graduate and a trained music therapist who specializes in people with dementia. This morning, LePage holds up a poster of Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family and encourages a half-dozen people with memory-impairment and their caregivers to recall the plot and songs of The Sound of Music.

Liz Smith of Orleans Council on Aging
Liz Smith of the Orleans Council on Aging stands next to newly-installed exercise equipment designed for people with dementia. (Sean Corcoran/WGBH)

This is the Arts and Alzheimer's and Music program, which Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod and the Islands runs at different locations across the region, including here at the Provincetown Art Association Museum.

LePage uses song to stimulate Alzheimer's patients' long-term memory, while discussions about old films like The Wizard of Oz spark conversation. On the best days, the person with Alzheimer's becoming a bit more comfortable, relaxed and in the moment.

"You see people come in, and they have this look on their face, 'Oh my God, what are they making me do this time?' And then we start singing, and all of a sudden they start smiling. Their whole attitude just changes," LePage said.

For caregivers, seeing a lost smile again or hearing a singing voice that's gone missing can be a joyous moment.

Molly Perdue was a caregiver to her mother before she died and Perdue began working for Alzheimer's Services of the Cape and Islands. Perdue experienced one of those moments when her mother one day started singing "When the Saints Go Marching In".

"I thought that was phenomenal, that she could break out in a full song and know the words yet have difficulty putting two sentences together," Perdue said.

Despite their apparent benefit, these art and music sessions are not well-attended. In fact, the people who run the region's Alzheimer's support groups and adult day care programs, know they are interacting with just a fraction of the estimated 9,000 families on Cape Cod who are dealing with a loved one with the disease.

"When families hide this and don't want to talk to their neighbors about it and they isolate, it contributes to some of the difficulty of providing the care," LePage said. "And it also allows the person with the diseases to become isolated, and that's probably the worst thing that people can do with memory loss."

Joe Ataro, 71, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago. It's in the early stages. He can still drive and stay at home alone, but the disease has affected his speech. He attends as many art and music sessions as he can.

"It makes life, you know, it fills things up. Your area around you. It gives you a filling situation. I can't quite put…" Ataro said.

Joe spent 31 years with Truro's volunteer fire department. He also was chairman of the town Conservation Commission for a time, which is where he met his wife Maxine, the commission secretary. They've been married for 13 years.

"When he was first diagnosed with it, at first he thought he didn't want to tell people. He is at the point now that he is comfortable with me telling people, and I think the more people that know it, the more accepting they are to it. They are not looking at him, like, what's wrong with him? Why isn't he saying what he wants to say?" Maxine said.

Joe has asked Maxine to finish his sentences for him when she knows what he's trying to say.

"His biggest fear is, he worries about me. If in fact he does reach that point when he needs help. He tells me all the time, when I ever get that point, put me in a home," Mazine said. "And I keep telling him, no. I will make sure that you stay home with me and I take care of you. Because it's just what people do."

Taking care of a loved one at home is something thousands of people are doing in Massachusetts. But it can present problems as the disease progresses and the care-iver is left on 24-hour duty with little-to-no-support.

Liz Smith is the director of Orleans Council on Aging, which hosts a robust Adult Day Care program for people with memory-impairment. The program lets caregivers leave their loved ones for nearly six hours each weekday in a safe environment where there's exercise and music classes, and lots of people who are trained in how to best interact with people with Alzheimer's. But despite the benefits, Smith says caregivers often are reluctant to participate.

"Unfortunately there's a shame that seems to go to the diseases," Smith saod. "It's almost like one caused it. There is a tendency of shame so they hide their loved one, keep them home. Which is not a good thing."

Per capita, Orleans is the oldest town in the state, with an estimated 400 people living with Alzheimer's. But the adult day program has only about 30 seniors enrolled, and they come from several communities, not just Orleans. Smith is hopeful that a new weekend program, which is only four hours long, will help ease people into the idea that it's okay to leave loved ones in the hands of others who know Alzheimer's disease and what it can do. But before patients and caregivers can benefit, families must get past their anxiety and the shame that prevents them from seeking help.


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