How Certain Types of Dementia Can Unleash a Person’s Creativity 

Arthur (Art) Lee suffers from Lewy body dementia (LBD). Words often fail him and his arms and hands often experience uncontrollable tremors.  But somehow, he still paints incredible oil paintings. Whether a portrait, a landscape, or an abstract (on his most troubling days), Art is able to create masterpieces with his paintbrush. 

What makes Art’s ability to paint so incredible is how he can paint such incredible portraits with his tremors and stiffness. He does so using a few tools to help him better steady his hands as he paints: an artist’s tool called a mahl stick and a tennis ball that is speared through by a paintbrush for those days when his hands will not cooperate with gripping a small, fine paintbrush. Art is able to place his hands more easily around the ball, bringing his fingers gently together to meet at the base of the paintbrush, allowing him more control. Art also uses his fingers to produce his masterpieces, adding dimension to the canvas. Some might call it finger painting. His wife calls it “genius.” 

Art is on a mission to paint every day. According to his wife, “(w)hen he was given this debilitating, degenerative, life shortening sentence of Lewy body dementia (LBD), he could have curled up in a ball and withered his time away, angry and despondent. He could have given up. But instead, he reaches out daily to discover new meanings in life through his artistic abilities.” 

Similar to Lee, Kevin Whitaker is a painter and a person who lives with LBD and Parkinson’s disease. He draws inspiration from George Orwell and Vincent Van Gogh and often paints to music. Kevin had an exhibition of his work, titled “Still Headroom” in Toronto in 2018. Read more about Kevin Whitaker here.  

Some Researchers Think that Certain Types of Dementia can Lead to Increased Creativity 

According to a case study published in Scientific American, certain types of dementia and other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, can awaken the creative potential of the brain’s visual areas. A 2006 case report looked at LBD in a 78-year old male artist to learn how it influenced his paintings during the course of his disease. The first part of the study evaluated two paintings by the artist of the same subject matter, one that the patient painted before his illness and the other after the onset of this disease. The second study of this artist evaluated a collection of his paintings from the time before he was diagnosed with LBD (1994) until the time he stopped painting (2002). The researchers found that although most of his purely artistic qualities suffered a decline, the novelty of his paintings while suffering from LBD improved. The researchers also found that the paintings that were judged as having the highest quality representations were significantly more novel than those that had poorer representations.  

Recent studies show that those with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) also become more creative with the disease, but it is different than with those with LBD. A new study published in JAMA Neurology provides insight into a possible cause. As specific brain areas diminish in FTD, researchers found that those with the disease “release their inhibition, or control, of other regions that support artistic expression.” This is different than what happens with LBD, where people become less artistically inclined as the disease progresses.  

In the study about FTD, the researchers reviewed the medical records of 689 people with FTD or related disorders, looking for evidence of new or increased interest in artistic activities. In total, they found this change in 17 people — or 2.5 percent of their FTD participants. Most of these individuals painted, although some drew, sculpted, made pottery, crafted jewelry, or quilted. FTD can sometimes be linked to certain genes, but none of these individuals had any known genetic cause of their dementia. Most in this artistic group had either the semantic or non-fluent variant (impaired speech production and difficulty in understanding word meanings) of the disease, suggesting that FTD significantly affected their temporal lobe.  

FTD is also often accompanied by repetitive behavior in which people repeat the same actions or statements or become mentally stuck in an idea or behavior. Some scientists have proposed that the FTD artist benefits from the lack of inhibition they feel and repetitive practice. They also mention that other factors, “such as an artistic predisposition and an environment or circumstances conducive to creative pursuits,” may also be significant. 

The researchers observed the brain changes in one individual as her FTD progressed and creativity emerged. Positron-emission tomography (PET) scans measured how much energy was being used by different regions of her brain. Comparing brain scans revealed that, as the woman’s dementia progressed, her frontal and temporal lobes became significantly less active — and the areas involved in visual association became more active (which again, contrasts with LBD). 

A few rare cases of FTD were even linked to improvements in verbal creativity, such as greater poetic gifts and increased wordplay and punning!  

Is it Possible that an Artist is Hidden in all of us, Awaiting an Accidental Emergence? 

You can enjoy art and creativity at any age. As you can see, this is also true if you are living with certain types of dementia. If you have a loved one with dementia who wants to be more creative, you can try these tips to get started:  

  • Encourage self-expression:  Activities can include painting, drawing, music, conversation, reminiscing or more. 
  • Make activities safe: Remove furniture or floor coverings that can be tripped over. Also remove supplies that are not needed for the activity. 
  • Reduce distractions: Turning off the radio or television can help in trying to focus. 
  • Leave art supplies, art books, magazines or music out to encourage activity. And have things ready before beginning an art activity. 
  • Focus on enjoyment: Rules of the “right way” to do things are not needed. Keep an open mind. Take a no-judgment approach. 
  • Know that energy levels can change: If an activity doesn’t go well, it might just be the wrong time or activity. Try again later. 
  • Take a group approach: People who did art programs in a group experienced more peer support, relationship building and sense of being included.  

Plan Ahead for Dementia  

At the Farr Law Firm, our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® contains a Dementia Directive that addresses the changes in cognition that occur as dementia progresses, as well as the changes in goals of care that patients might want along the continuum of the disease. 

If you or any of your loved ones have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Among other services, we offer peace of mind through our four levels of lifetime protection planning:     

Level 1 — Incapacity Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate, also known as guardianship and conservatorship. Everyone over the age of 18 should have this type of planning in place.     

Level 2 — Revocable Living Trust Estate Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate and after-death probate, keeping in mind that using only a Last Will and Testament to transfer your assets at death forces your estate through the nightmare of after-death probate. All individuals and families who have children and/or financial assets should strongly consider Level 2 Planning.     

Level 3 — Living Trust Plus® Asset Protection Planning provides protection from probate, lawsuits, home care, and assisted living expenses by allowing access to Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits, and nursing home expenses by allowing access to Medicaid. This type of planning is done by clients who are typically retired and either still healthy or have recently been diagnosed with (or have a family history of) dementia or some other illness that is likely to result in the future need for long-term care.      

Level 4 – Life Care Planning, Medicaid Asset Protection, and Veterans Asset Protection provides comprehensive planning and filing services, often at times of crisis, though this type of planning can be done anytime someone is beyond the first step of the Elder Care Continuum aka Aging Continuum.      

If you have not done the appropriate level of planning, or had your planning documents reviewed in the past several years, please call us today:     

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888            
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435            
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041            
Annapolis, MD Elder Law Attorney: 410-216-0703     

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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