Art therapy for seniors at risk of dementia

Seniors at Yong-En Care Centre enjoy an art and craft session.
Seniors at Yong-En Care Centre enjoy an art and craft session. PHOTO: ST FILE

30 in local study will also visit museums and be tracked for improvements in cognition

From July, a group of seniors at risk of developing dementia will be put on a course of art therapy classes and museum visits, under a study to see if these activities could stave off the condition.

These 30 Jurong residents will visit the National Gallery Singapore or NUS Museum on alternate weeks, over nine months.

On other weeks, they will attend art therapy classes, where they will be guided to express their thoughts and feelings through painting, drawing, collage and other mediums.

"We want to find out if art can improve their overall well-being and cognition, through an evidence-based approach," said Professor Kua Ee Heok of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, who is co-leading the study.

Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans will be done on the elderly participants at the start of the study, as well as three and nine months later, to track for changes in brain activity.

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Blood tests will be done to check for improvements in their immune systems.

They will also be tested on things like their memory, concentration and spatial awareness.

In similar overseas trials, improvements in neuropsychiatric symptoms such as social behaviour and self-esteem have been reported in dementia patients after art therapy.

But these overseas studies have been based mostly on anecdotal evidence, which makes the local study novel, said Prof Kua.

Each session will last 45 minutes, starting with a short mindfulness practice where participants will be asked to focus on their thoughts, breathing and body sensations.

Museum visits will be followed by discussions on specific paintings, where participants will be asked by specially trained docents from the National Gallery Singapore and NUS to share how they relate to them.

Ms Suenne Megan Tan, director of education and programmes at the National Gallery Singapore, said the museum hopes that the skills that its docents develop from these sessions will allow them to facilitate similar group therapy programmes in future.

In the art therapy classes, therapists from Sage Counselling Centre will get participants to reflect on themes such as their relationship with their family, and help them express these feelings through art. "This will stimulate the minds by getting them to recall their memories," said Mr Wong Lit Shoon, executive director of the centre.

His centre has been conducting art therapy sessions for people with emotional and psychological problems since 2006.

Many of them have become happier and more sociable after art therapy.

The nine-month dementia study is an extension of the larger 10-year longitudinal Jurong Ageing Study started in 2013, which aims to reduce depression and dementia in the elderly residents of Jurong.

The preliminary results from that study showed that activities such as music, art, mindfulness therapy and taiji reduced anxiety levels and symptoms of depression.

Dementia affects one in 10 Singaporeans aged over 60, and the number of dementia patients here is projected to reach 53,000 by 2020, and 187,000 by 2050.

Prof Kua hopes that one day, a suite of activities that can keep dementia at bay can be recommended to seniors who are suffering from mild cognitive impairment.

"We can tell people to try out an entire package of activities, knowing that our claims are backed up with scientific evidence," Prof Kua said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Art therapy for seniors at risk of dementia'. Print Edition | Subscribe