Art as therapy for dementia

February 25, 2013

"Colored Storm" by Mildred is on display at the
Memories in the Making exhibit

Art as "an engagement of the spirit" for those suffering from dementia was one theme of a collaboration between the UNT Health Science Center’s Healthy Aging Council and the Alzheimer’s Association-North Central Texas Chapter on Feb. 13. The reception and panel discussion celebrated a campus exhibition of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memories in the Making (MIM) program, an art therapy program for dementia patients.

A collection of MIM watercolor paintings by dementia patients is hanging on the second level of the Health Science Center’s Atrium Gallery until Feb. 28. 

Lisa Buck, MIM Coordinator, explained the art program allows dementia patients to continue to express themselves, even when they lose the ability to express themselves through their professions, hobbies or even in words.

"If you can hold a paintbrush, you can participate in Memories in the Making," she said. 

A panel of experts discussed the benefits of programs like MIM. Janice Knebl, DO, MBA, Professor and Dallas Southwest Osteopathic Physicians Endowed Chair in Clinical Geriatrics,; and Sid O’Bryant, PhD, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine; joined Natalie Kunkel, who has a recreational therapy background and serves as operations director for Arbor House Assisted Living Centers.

Alheimer's Panel UNTHSC
Natalie Kunkel, Sid O’Bryant and Janice Knebl

"Every human being needs joy, connection and a purpose," said Kunkel.  "This program is not about how these paintings look, but about that connection." Arbor House residents enjoy the program because "this, they can do," even though dementia limits their abilities to enjoy other activities. "Art is an engagement of the spirit," she said. 

O’Bryant noted why the program works from a biologic perspective. Activities like painting help the brain build more "connections," improving function, he said. They also help the brain produce more neurotransmitters and proteins that help it work more effectively.

"We hear that this kind of therapy helps," O’Bryant said, "and that anecdotal experience is backed up very strongly by science." 

Knebl pointed out that activities are important for patients with dementia to maintain their abilities as long as possible.

"It’s important to focus on their strengths and what they can do – not on what they can’t do," she said, which makes Memories in the Making appealing. Patients with dementia who paint "have the freedom to express themselves when they may be unable to do so via spoken language," she said. 

"They are not afraid to paint outside the lines," Knebl said. "They don’t have the boundaries we have when we’re trying to be ‘normal.’"

Memories in the Making paintings are available for auction until Feb. 28 at — proceeds benefit the Memories in the Making program. The exhibit of original paintings on the second level of the Atrium Gallery is open for viewing weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment.

Aging and Alzheimer’s disease is an area of strength for the UNT Health Science Center in terms of education, patient care and research. To learn more about the Healthy Aging Council, please visit:


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