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5 essential elements for successful art programming for persons with cognitive deficits

July 18, 2017

How is teaching art to people with cognitive impairments different from other art instruction?


First and foremost, the facilitator is providing an opportunity for joy. Creating with paint and other media is in itself enjoyable and the end-goal is to enjoy the process. Below are 5 essential components to facilitating a therapeutic and pleasurable experience.​​


Comfort: Physical environment matters to everyone but especially so for persons living with dementia. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Chairs with backs, tables with plenty of space to work, and comfortable temperatures invite artists to explore easily

  •  If you are in an air-conditioned space, you may need some wraps or blankets.

  • Be aware that some materials will feel unpleasant. Sticky fingers from glue or paint or sloppier materials such as clay will sometimes elicit strong negative responses. Make plans for alternative projects and don't forget some wet-wipes.

Tools: You will need to offer a wide range of tools for different levels of physical and cognitive skill. These adaptations are easy and helpful.

  • Paint brushes wide to small, with grips and without.

  • Colored pencils need to be soft and show color with a minimum of exertion.

  • Supports of paper or canvas need to be well-secured with masking tape. I like to work with cafeteria trays. They are lightweight and inexpensive. Students may prop them in their lap, on a book, or flat on the table.

  • Bring large sponges that are easy to grip but some will want tiny brushes, sharp pencils, or markers. Avoid crayons; they are difficult to manipulate and not age appropriate.

Stimulus: People with cognitive impairments may refuse to participate if overstimulated. These reminders will help avoid adversarial moments.

  • Stimulus should be moderate, gentle, and consistent. Too much noise or loud music will distract and deter.

  • Simple routines will assist your senior artist to settle in and enjoy the activity. Greet each person by name and offer an outstretched hand for a handshake.

  • Consider including a physical "stretch" as part of the lesson.

  • Play background music quietly once the participants are fully engaged.



Non-verbal cues: People who can't fully process verbal information will become frustrated very quickly. Try the following:

  • Use non-verbal cues along with verbal instruction. Point to the chair, the table, the materials, while you are talking. Demonstrate how to use the paint, pastel, etc.

  • Make sure an image or example is easily in view. Sometimes I "draw" with my finger on the paper and the participant follows along until she can go forward on her own.

  • Make sure your participants can see you. You may have to demonstrate several times in different locations if you are working with a mid-sized group.

Safety: A person living with dementia may not realize that the watercolor paint-water is not juice or that the scissors are quite sharp. To minimize risks, incorporate the following precautions.

  • Bring child-safe scissors and count them before and after the activity.

  • Clearly identify paint cups with tape or paint. Smocks can be helpful, make sure they are gently and properly worn.

  • Refrain from any toxic materials such as oil paints or solvents. If you have any questions, request a Safety Data Sheet.

Finally, bring a non-judgmental attitude of fun and an eagerness to listen. Persons living with dementia will surprise you with their imaginative creations and recollections.



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