According to a survey by the Global Alliance for Arts and Health in 2009, nearly half of the US healthcare institutions - mostly hospitals - have art programmes, including permanent displays of arts, performances in public spaces and bedside activities.

While arts cannot completely cure an illness, "research has proven that it does assist the patient in terms of getting well," says Sharon Woodworth, an architect and Global Alliance board member.

The examples below show the significant support that various types of arts and humanities provide to patients physically and psychologically.

1. Dance benefits Parkinson’s patients

In Stanford Neuroscience Health Centre, a programme called Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, also known as Dance for PD, was set up to provide a community for Parkinson’s patients. It was started in 2001 by Olie Westheimer, the executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. He wanted the patients to do something positive and beneficial together instead of spending a lot of time dwelling on the disease.

Sherry Brown, 74, is among some 20 students who have found a welcoming community at the class. She said the class is not only physically therapeutic but often gives students a psychological boost.

“Dancing has all the elements Parkinson’s patients can benefit from: extension and flexibility and moving with intention,” says Damara Ganley, a professional dancer and trained Dance for PD instructor. “Dancers are trained to be in their bodies in a conscious way, and Parkinson’s patients also are learning to be in their bodies in a conscious way.”

In fact, studies have shown that Parkinson’s patients who do some form of dance experience measurable physical and psychological improvements. More than a dozen studies have shown that twice-weekly dance classes improve balance, motor skills, freedom of movement and endurance.

2. Visual art helps dementia patients

Studies also show that art therapy can enhance communication, brain function and social interaction for dementia patients. Moreover, visual art can trigger dormant memories and emotions, which motivate the patients who normally struggle to express themselves, to make conversations.

The dementia patients are not just viewing the art but also creating the art themselves, thus stimulating the whole brain using their motor skills. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America affirms that art making, in a community setting or at home, can “excite the imagination of people with dementia.”

Dr. Daniel C. Potts founded an art therapy program after his father Lester’s death from Alzheimer’s disease. Lester had become a renowned watercolour artist as part of his means of coping.

“Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process, and individuals can express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improves, and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over,” says Potts.

He adds that there is “good evidence” that the available therapies may work best in combination—for example, art therapy plus music and dance. Alternatively, creative writing and poetry, or a drama therapy session that makes use of written and spoken word, art and music can be combined within one art therapy session.

“What is certain is that all of them work better when reminiscence and personal expression make up an integral part of the therapy, where care is taken to not only help patients reminisce, but also to validate the their present reality.”

3. Art supports paediatric cancer patients

A children’s hospital in Boston is said to be a temple of paediatrics, providing some of the country’s best medical care. Jason Springer, an educator from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston makes regular visits to this hospital to bring art workshop to young patients, along with works from the museum’s collection.

Riley Román, 8, has a brain tumor. He joins the hospital’s arts and crafts offerings as much as he can, said his mother, Andrea. “It’s everything,” she said. “I think it really matters.”

Andrea explained how Riley experienced weakness across the right side of his body but his hand function has almost completely returned. “I feel like all of this helps him in a lot of aspects of healing.”

For many young patients, it is this distraction - an opportunity to be considered by an adult not for their illness, but for their imagination and skill - that is the most important aspect of the workshop.

“I think that to have the chance to interact with an adult that’s not a doctor, it brings out their ability to be a kid,” said Springer. “Art is a great medium to be at the center of that conversation.”

Other than the examples above, arts such as music, singing and writing can also be therapeutic to patients helping to decrease anxiety and divert their focus. MIMS

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