Art Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses artistic media as its primary mode of communication and expression. Though verbal expression is always welcome, in combination with the creative element, art therapy provides a variety of angles from which the therapist can engage with the inner world of the client.
Art therapy can serve persons with dementia in a variety of ways that really speak to its validity as a psychotherapy that engenders mind-body-spirit well-being. It requires no previous knowledge of artistic media – in fact, in some cases not having participated in art previously allows the client a unique opportunity to experiment freely.
The act of creating art involves complex neurological processes that maintain neuroplasticity and help to exercise executive functioning. Much thought goes into the process of choosing a suitable material and colour, where it will go on the canvas, how much of it to apply and how. Often times these more complex processes are go unnoticed and in actuality, be rather enjoyable. This is one of the biggest advantages of art making for neurological well-being – the harder work is disguised by a gratifying activity that often generates feelings of pride and accomplishment. Moreover, art making involves the use of different types of memory; sensory memory, kinesthetic memory, short-term memory when learning a new skill, long term memory when we use our life experiences to create a narrative. Materials can transport us to different eras of our lives, allowing us to relive these experiences.
The act of making involves the use of the body as a conduit to convey decisions, ideas and feelings reinforcing the mind-body connection and keeping us grounded in the present. Making art is an activity that settles the nervous system in a parasympathetic flow, much like a state of expansion. As we create this space of expansion, we allow repressed feelings to arise and make themselves known to our conscious mind.
When we manipulate materials, we work in the here-and-now – some of the subject matter that arises through our artwork may reflect unresolved parts of our lives that we haven’t been able to make sense of internally, that we need to see externally and at a distance in order to work them out. This all takes place through the use of symbolic language that allows the client to engage with thoughts and ideas that they might otherwise repress because of the emotional discomfort that facing them head on may cause.
Art therapy can be done in a variety of formats and contexts. Due to its flexible nature, is appropriate for group, couple, and individual therapy. As it is a psychotherapy, it must always be carried out by a licensed professional.