Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 10/26/22

As author of The Planet Alzheimer’s Guide: 8 Ways the Arts Can Transform the Life of Your Loved One and Your Own and playwright of Planet A which dramatizes about the inner world of Alzheimer’s patients, Mary Crescenzo was recently named among the 2022 Maude’s Awards honorees for her pioneering work in utilizing the arts to reach out to and engage those living with Alzheimer’s diseases and dementia.

Maude’s Awards was created in 2019 by Korn-Ferry International co-founder Richard Ferry to honor of his beloved wife of 65 years, to enrich the quality of life for persons living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and their care partners and to provide monetary awards to organizations and individuals for innovators in the field.

JWK: What led you to write this book?

Mary Crescenzo: I attended an informal exhibit of art work by persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia curated by a fellow teaching artist and arts council roster member in Tulsa. I was in awe of the individuality and creativity of the paintings on the walls. I asked him if he could train me in also being a facilitator of the arts engagement sessions he held with persons with this disease. I soon expanded the program to include music, movement, poetry and storytelling.

JWK: What is “arts engagement”?

MC: Arts engagement is the participation in an arts experience (visual, literary, performing arts, artisan crafts, etc.) that allows for creative expression and often interaction which fosters stimulation, self-expression, relaxation and socialization. For persons with Alzheimer’s I’ve created methods that allow one’s innate ability for self-expression to find its way to the present based on the common ground we all share for expression, with fluid guidance, focus on process and without judgement. It’s not the use of a one-size fits all, on-off activity with expectations nor is it busy work put in the hands of a person without considering individual person-based care.

JWK: You’ve devised eight ways to connect and communicate with persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia through the arts. What are these ways and why and how do they work?

MC: Each chapter illustrates one of the eight ways (including) Painting and Drawing; Music and Movement; Poetry and Storytelling; Working with photos, art books and visiting museums; Engaging in art making with family members, friends, including children; Engaging with support and medical staff in the art experience; Displaying and sharing art with family, friends, staff, and the public; (and) Self-care for care partners through creative writing for respite/relaxation.

JWK: Why does this work?

MC: Because through these techniques I developed – that anyone can use – the art experience taps into the innate creative and emotional aspects of the brain, both which remain intact during most stages of this disease.

JWK: How does this work?

MC: Using these guidelines, a care partner can feel safe and confident to being in the present, within the common ground where art lives and try the different techniques as they engage their loved one in a positive, non-judgmental, even joyous way. The goal is not for product, or to determine what is right or wrong, but to follow the cues from the person you, as care partner, are engaging with. Step-by-step, easy to follow directions illustrate what to do when something doesn’t work, how to re-direct, how to feel okay to start again another day, etc.

JWK: How can loved ones, visiting family and care givers best utilize these methods most effectively? What are some of the dos and don’ts?

MC: Start slowly and positively. Explain simply what you will be doing together, and be enthusiastic about it. Don’t give up. See what happens. A list of “Dos and Don’t’s” are included at the end of each chapter in summary to guide you on your way.

JWK: Am I correct in assuming you suggest these methods be used alongside prescribed medical treatments, not instead of them?

MC: Absolutely. Art engagement is complementary to daily routines, prescriptive programs, and medications. Through socialization, interaction, stimulation, and relaxation that often occurs through art experiences, medications and plans of action for a person are often reassessed. With arts engagement, depression and anxiety are reduced, and mobility and socialization are increased – not just for the person with this disease but also for the care partner.

JWK: What sort of reaction have you received both from families and loved ones of those with Alzheimer’s or dementia and the medical community? Is there scientific evidence that supports utilizing to arts to help these patients?

MC: In the beginning of my work in 1994, families and the medical community were skeptical, puzzled and doubtful about what art could do. The most open to arts experience were the persons with Alzheimer’s themselves! Innovation of arts engagement was a radical thought at (the) inception of my work, even unwelcomed in some settings due to a lack of understanding of the benefits of inviting the innate creative impulse in this population to emerge. Whether apathy or rejection was born of budget priorities, a need to control the culture of these facilities and inhabitants, or a desire for status quo, resistance was often present. Making in-roads over the years was challenging but accomplished through not only providing education and developing trust, but by offering tangible art examples made by residents, individually or in small groups, on paper, in musical sessions, and through movement, poetry and storytelling. The increased willingness of residents to engage and interact through art making was evident in every session. The innovative impetus was to meet those with Alzheimer’s in their present state through art as a common denominator for self-expression of both residents, caregivers and family.

As for scientific evidence, In a 2006 study entitled The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health, and Social Functioning of Older Adults for the National Center for Creative Aging, led by Gene Cohen, M.D, Ph.D. and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (and) the Center for Mental Health Services of the Dept. of Health and Human Services among other government sponsors, findings included that “the intervention group reported higher overall physical health, fewer doctor’s visits, less medication use, fewer instances of falls, better morale, fewer feelings of loneliness, and a trend towards increased activity than did the control group.” Since 1994, my arts engagement work has shown anecdotally that such benefits are often result in persons with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

JWK: Can the arts also be beneficial in the self-care of the loved ones of those with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

MC: Care partners, family and friends need a safe and accessible way to express their complex feelings and frustrations that come with the daily routines required of them as care givers, and the emotional weight of seeing their loved ones in various stages of this disease. When care partners give themselves permission to engage in the arts, especially creative writing, one of the easiest and accessible art forms, they experience how cathartic just writing down their feelings can be. In chapter eight of my book, I offer writing prompts and techniques that one can do, even if only five minutes a day, that draw respite, relaxation and revelation from within a care partner’s heart and mind. All it takes it a pencil or pen and pad, or digital device and the willingness to find a safe, private place to let your feeling flow and go.

JWK: You’ve also written a play on the subject of dealing with Alzheimer’s called Planet A. Can you tell me about that?

MC: Planet A reveals the secrets, thoughts and frustrations of the past lives and present realities of Alzheimer’s patients, their professional caregivers, and family members. It was born out of my need to process the intense and overwhelming feelings I had when entering and exiting this inner world of Alzheimer’s each day. I witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of it all when I began my arts engagement work in small care homes and large institutional settings. I processed this by writing persona poems in the voices of those I worked with, using observation of each of their situations, listening to the things they told me, as well as using poetic license and imagination. This evolved into a theatrical, monologue-based stage play of the inner voices of those living with this disease and of visitors and staff to this hidden, misunderstood and often feared world.

In June, 2022, Planet A was produced as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. I always have a representative from an Alzheimer’s organization present for a Q&A after the show. I see this post-theatrical event as a public forum, a safe place for discussion and understanding of the disease and all the myths it carries, through the art of theater.

JWK: How can people get your book and receive more information on the subject of arts engagement for Alzheimer’s and dementia?

MC: The Planet Alzheimer’s Guide: 8 Ways the Arts can Transform the Life of Your Loved One and Your Own is available on Amazon. I am available for lectures on this topic, talks and workshops at care partner and Alzheimer’s-friendly conferences, at care partner support groups, as well as consultations for memory care administrators in the use and benefits of my methods, and private consultations for care partners and family members. Contact me at

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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