We applaud Kavan Peterson’s Forget about Memory! Focus on Imagination article. We are inspired by with such an assertive stand advocating for new approaches to dementia and Alzheimer’s care — approaches that can improve quality of life without resorting to the use of anti-psychotic drugs. As Kavan says, the very least dementia care communities should do is introduce the Music and Memory Program. The use of the arts in dementia care is an exciting field that is just hitting its stride.
While our efforts to promote cognitive wellness tend to focus on healthy older adults, most of our recommendations pertain equally to people who are living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. As the title of Kavan’s blog suggests, loss of memory does not mean loss of mind and certainly does not mean loss of imagination. Nor does dementia signal the loss of the ability to find pleasure and fulfillment in music and other arts. There is growing evidence that the arts not only contribute to cognitive health, but just as important, contribute to overall wellness and satisfaction with life for people with all kinds of challenges.
At MINDRAMP Consulting we strive to translate cutting edge research into practical programs and strategies that promote cognitive wellness. This goal begs the question — just what do we mean by cognitive wellness? We have come to believe that there are two essential components of the wellness equation. One side of the equation focuses on brain health — on the attempt to limit structural damage and to manage diseases that undermine cognitive function. But, the other side of the equation is equally important. This second side focuses on the ability to find pleasure, meaning, purpose and fulfillment in life.
The term “flourishing” is frequently used as a shorthand term for all of these elements of wellness. Martin Seligman in his book Flourish, defines wellness as being composed of five core elements: positive emotions, meaning, engagement, accomplishment and positive social interactions.[i]
As I explained in a recent review of Seligman’s book posted on Amazon, I was quite taken by his point that mental wellness is not achieved by simply removing the causes of mental distress. The absence of pathology can still leave people feeling empty. The other side of the wellness coin is the cultivation of real happiness, meaning and fulfillment, which requires concerted effort. We need to learn how to release and nurture the positive aspects of our psychological makeup. Quality of life is not achieved when we languish; it is achieved by learning to flourish.
A healthy brain may make it easier to attain these positive conditions of wellness, but a growing body of evidence makes it clear that people who struggle with profound cognitive deficits can still flourish. And, it is frequently the arts that unlock the gates to this secret garden of subjective wellness.
Kavan asks for additional ideas on how to improve quality of care and quality of life and reduce the use of anti-psychotic drugs. I’d like to offer some ideas that center around the power of the arts to nurture wellness.
For starters, I want to whole-heartedly second the support for Ann Basting’s Timeslips program. It is a model program that sets the standard for approaches that promote quality of life for people living with dementia. The Modern Museum of Art’s art program for Alzheimer’s patients and John Zeisel’s work pioneered the approach captured by your title. Forget about memory; focus on the imagination.
Timeslips and the museum projects use the arts to interact with people in the here and now. They focus on feelings and thoughts that are happening in the present, not on the ability to recall facts and figures from the past. In so doing they reaffirm the dignity and worth of people who have lost their memory by engaging retained cognitive functions, like imagination, to discover meaning, fulfillment and joy in what is happening right now.
MINDRAMP has very close ties with the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA). The mission of the NCCA is to foster an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging, and to develop programs that build upon this understanding. Their membership includes the top teaching artist in the country. These working artists design, implement and test arts programs for older adults, both healthy adults and adults with dementia.
So, here you go, Kavan. Here are two ideas to consider:
1) I highly recommend that teaching artists, elder-living and care community leaders, and those interested in creativity and aging, become members of NCCA and take full advantage of their many services. We recommend that your readers learn more about NCCA at: http://www.creativeaging.org/about-ncca-0.
2) I also recommend attending the second annual Creative Aging Leadership Exchange that will be held at Arena Stage in Washington DC this May 19-20. Leaders from the field of creative aging will explore arts programs, the business of supporting arts programs for elders, and the scientific research that support the field. I will be moderating the opening research plenary panel.
Learn more about the conference at: http://www.creativeaging.org/www.conference.creativeaging.org.
[i] Seligman, Martin. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York. Free Press.