The Value of Creative Expression

Music, art, dance and poetry can open new meaning in life for people with dementia

 Lifelong musician Walter Mitson, 92, was diagnosed with dementia five years ago. Today, music still engages him. Photography By Jennifer Friesen.

Lifelong musician Walter Mitson, 92, was diagnosed with dementia five years ago. Today, music still engages him. Photography By Jennifer Friesen.

Music filled the air at Walter Mitson’s 95th birthday celebration, and the atmosphere was right in tune with his lifelong passion.

Mitson joined his first band at age 16, playing the accordion at Calgary’s Palliser Hotel. His daughter, Denise Still, says music was part of life in her childhood home, as musicians dropped in for jam sessions featuring piano, banjo—and, of course, accordion.

Father and daughter have faced hurdles over the past few years, but music bonds them. 

“There was always music in our house—always,” Still says. “I still remember coming home to him playing the heaviest Bach or the most amazing Mozart.”

Mitson was diagnosed with dementia five years ago, but “he’s never lost his love of music,” she says. As his hearing deteriorated and he moved into a full-time care facility in Okotoks, Still noticed that her father wasn’t enjoying music in the same way he always had, so she enlisted the help of JB Music Therapy.

Therapist Rebecca Woodruff recalls walking into Mitson’s room for their first session in the summer of 2016. He was sitting quietly in an easy chair when Woodruff introduced herself: “I heard you were a musician. What instrument do you play?”

He looked up, smiled and told her all about his love of jazz. 

Anytime we start talking about being a musician you can see that spark come back to him.
— Therapist Rebecca Woodruff.
 Walter Mitsonhe visits with therapist Rebecca Woodruff.

Walter Mitsonhe visits with therapist Rebecca Woodruff.

“Anytime we start talking about being a musician you can see that spark come back to him,” Woodruff says. “Music is such a wonderful part of his life, and he can share that with you.”

Jennifer Buchanan founded JB Music Therapy 25 years ago to help people facing challenges from anxiety to injury to memory loss. She says music is universal: even if memory fades, it triggers feelings of “when we were our best.”

“When we hear music, there’s an immediate reaction of it going straight to our limbic system, and it’s interesting because that’s where our emotions, memory and motivation reside,” Buchanan says.

Recent studies have shown that creative activities like music and other art forms can ease depression and isolation by engaging various parts of the brain and allowing people to make choices and decisions.

Nonverbal Communication

Music moves us both emotionally and physically. Melissa Tafler is the coordinator of arts and health at Baycrest Health Services, which supports innovation in brain health and aging. Based in Toronto, Tafler and her team have run a special dance program for people with dementia since 2014.

As a form of nonverbal communication and self-expression, Tafler says, dance can improve emotional health—particularly vital for those with dementia.

“It’s so important when the capacity for language is not what it once was,” she says.

“There’s also potential for relationship-building through the experience of dancing together. I’ve seen it time and time again, and it’s what keeps reminding me of the importance of this work.”

The dance program is in the process of expanding across Canada, and Baycrest has developed an online training curriculum so the program can be run anywhere.

 Participants get moving  during a Dancing Parkinson’s YYC session at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks.

Participants get moving  during a Dancing Parkinson’s YYC session at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks.

Challenging Assumptions

“There’s an assumption that life is over (when one is diagnosed)—that there’s nothing people can do, or that they can’t learn, or there isn’t a need for high-quality programming because it isn’t appreciated so it doesn’t matter,” Tafler says. “Those assumptions are challenged when people see the program in action.”

While there aren’t any dance classes in Calgary specifically designed for people with dementia, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) runs a program for people with Parkinson’s disease called Dancing Parkinson’s YYC. Vicki Adams Willis, founder of DJD and director of the program, says dance integrates several brain functions, including the rational, emotional, kinesthetic and musical, increasing neural activity. 

Dancing isn’t just good for the body; it’s good for the brain as well.
— Vicki Adams Willis, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks

The activity that comes with dance has been shown to have anti-aging effects on the hippocampus, which affects memory, learning and balance. A 2017 study showed that dance stimulates the brain and correlates to a noticeable improvement in behaviour. 

“I always like to say that scientists are now discovering what dancers have known for years,” Willis says with a laugh. “Dancing isn’t just good for the body; it’s good for the brain as well.”

A Warm Environment

Music in general has been shown in scientific studies to lower heart rate, reduce anxiety and alleviate depression. Calgary-based music therapist Sara Pun says this is important for seniors with dementia in care homes, “because they’re disconnected from their loved ones and facing a very difficult disease.” 

As dementia progresses, it’s common to face difficulty with communication. But when words fail us, the arts offer a way to express ourselves.

“We live in such a verbal world that we sometimes think that the only way we can connect is through talking,” Pun says. “But music provides a warm environment where you can hold hands with someone, look into their eyes and feel the presence of that person. A lot of loved ones might be used to conversation verbally, but it’s nice to introduce a different way of connecting.”

As Still recalls her father’s first music therapy session, the connection Pun describes is apparent. As he sang Fly Me to the Moon or Release Me, she saw the father she always knew again. Looking into his eyes brought her back to those early days in her childhood home.

“When I see him sing wholeheartedly, I’m so grateful that I get to share that moment and that memory with him.”

 OMA participant Cathy Sherwood, left, and her sister Barb Schultz discuss the art on display at Club 36.

OMA participant Cathy Sherwood, left, and her sister Barb Schultz discuss the art on display at Club 36.

‘We Were All Born Artists’

Although science has yet to find a way to reverse dementia, creative activities may allow those affected to maintain skills and access memories. Since Ali Cada brought the Opening Minds Through Art (OMA) program to Calgary in 2014, he has used art to connect with more than 200 people with dementia in the city. The program has expanded throughout the province.

Cada says tapping into creativity can enhance memory and offer a sense of independence.

“When we are in our mother’s womb, her heartbeat is the first form of music we hear,” he says. “So we were all born artists.”

Individuals with dementia sometimes can’t express themselves, but art, music, dance and poetry give them a voice again.
— Ali Cada, Opening Minds Through Art
 One of the paintings being admired by Sherwood and Schultz.

One of the paintings being admired by Sherwood and Schultz.

Leeanne Stringer of Calgary-based Ware on Earth arts studio has recently begun teaching painting to people with dementia. She says seeing the joy and engagement of participants can be very emotional for her. 

“It’s beautiful to see them looking at their artwork with pride, despite any early hesitation about ‘not being an artist,’” Stringer says.

For people living with dementia, someone else may make decisions about daily living, from mealtimes and clothing to activities. Creating art allows for independent choices, from the colour of paint to the size and shape of a subject.

“Individuals with dementia sometimes can’t express themselves, but art, music, dance and poetry give them a voice again,” Cada says.

Barb Schultz’s sister Cathy Sherwood, diagnosed with Alzeimer’s disease and mixed dementia in 2016, is an OMA participant.

“Cathy could have been an interior decorator if she wanted,” Schultz says. “Her time at OMA has been invaluable.” 

Life-Changing Experience

Similar to music, poetry has been shown to boost memory for people with dementia. Gary Glazner started the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project after his mother’s memory faded near the end of her battle with terminal cancer. One day when his mom was agitated, Glazner tried to soothe her by reciting a rhyme from her elementary-school days. 

“Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy?” she used to ask her childhood sweetheart Billy, who later became her husband and Glazner’s father. 

“My father’s name is Billy and she used to tease him with this when they were childhood sweethearts,” he says. “I said that line to my mom and she began to sing it back to me. My dad was there and it felt like we were all connected.”

Cathy could have been an interior decorator if she wanted. Her time at OMA has been invaluable.
— Barb Schultz

He calls it a life-changing experience, one that pushed him to “counteract the stigma around getting a diagnosis of dementia, which can be isolating.”

Now 20-plus years later, the U.S.-based project (alzpoetry.com) has expanded to seven countries including Canada.

Transported Back

Walter Mitson celebrated his 95th birthday in 2017, surrounded by his family. The entire room sang Happy Birthday, and his daughter Denise Still saw the emotion in his eyes. Her father thanked everyone for being there. “You have no idea how much I love each of you,” he said through tears.

Woodruff, Buchanan and Still were there again this year for Mitson’s 96th, a more intimate celebration this time. He sat in his easy chair and sang along to jazz favourites.

Rebecca Woodruff, his music therapist, had learned to play Happy Birthday on the accordion just for him.

Says Woodruff: “Watching someone see music bring their loved one back and draw them out of their shell again—it’s wonderful.” [ ] 


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