Easy art projects to do with your care partner when you’re both going nuts

Brush point in watercolor paint closeup

If you’re a caregiver taking care of someone at home, you probably feel like pulling your hair out. It’s tough, especially if you or your care partner, or both of you are experiencing anxiety or stress.

Here are a few things you can do by yourself and with your care partner.

“Art Exercises for Caregivers” by Meg Carlson, chapter 11 in my book Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

  1. Making an Inside/Outside Box

Materials:

  • Boxes-shoe box, tea box, metal tin, etc.
  • Mixed media-crayons, paint, markers, glue, feathers, felt, rocks,

Decorating a box allows the artist to reflect his/her persona or face that is shown to the outside world on the outside of the box. Decorating the inside of the box is an opportunity to express the internal feelings and conflicts that are private or feel too big to find words to express. Use whatever materials that are available to decorate the outside of the box, and then the inside of the box to express these feelings.

Outside Box: How do you experience being around others with your loved one? What do you share with the outside world about your process/how do you share?

Inside Box: What is really going on inside of you each day? What isn’t shared with others that have an impact on you?

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? What kinds of responses are you having?

  1. Daily or Weekly Mandalas

A mandala is a circular image. It begins with a circle drawn on a page. It can be any size and any media can be used.

Materials:

  • Paper: Bristol, Watercolor, or mixed media (6×6 is a great size)
  • It is small enough to be done in a brief sitting, and large enough to have room for several images or areas of focus.

Pencils, markers, watercolor, colored pencil, pastels, or crayons are all great.

A version of mandala exists in many spiritual traditions (rose windows in Cathedrals, Navajo and Tibetan sand paintings, Buddhist imagery, etc.) Mandalas can be used to support focusing attention, as a self check-in tool, to express emotions in a contained space (circle), for establishing a sacred space, and to aid in mindfulness and mediation. Carl Jung, through his own art process, came to realize that mandala paintings enabled him to identify dysfunctional emotional patterns and work towards integration and wholeness. 

  1. Color-Texture-Pattern Feelings Portrait

         This process is about awareness of how much is going on in each of us at any given moment. It is an opportunity to just GET IT OUT through color, movement, and expression. The imagery is usually abstract. It is the process of expressing that is beneficial here, not the finished product. Feelings are difficult to have, and when they are expressed visually they can be difficult to look at. But that is okay. If you use this process, when you are finished, take a moment to witness it like a loving friend. Then just set it aside. If your image invites a redo or edit, you can come back to it and work with it, even tear it up and re-create it. If not, let it go. The materials will support you to express emotions and that is their purpose sometimes …. to help you create something that is not necessarily pretty, but honest. That is their gift to you.

Materials:

  • Small to medium paper, mixed media paper is sturdy. Taped to surface is best. When you prep ask yourself, What size is my expression today? That will tell you what paper size to use.
  • Pencils, markers, watercolor, colored pencil, pastels, or crayons are all great.
  • This can be done between 5 and 25 minutes. It is simply the process of choosing colors and making textures and patterns that express the layers of feeling present. Let the speed and movement be an extension of your expression. It will be unique every time.
  1. Two Inch Window Drawing

The goal is to work with detail and discernment to create a bird’s eye view. Another way to use this tool is one of magnification, to zoom in to one aspect of something larger; examples could be to feel a single sensation, filling a small (contained) space with just what is magnified. Used as a daily or coping practice it may serve to redirect concentration or focus energy and attention, provide containment while titrating an intense sensation. They take between 1-10 minutes to complete. Think Macro and Micro… what would be most helpful, to step back or lean in?

Materials:

    • Paper: Bristol, watercolor, or mixed media (2×2 or 4×4)
    • Card stock scraps come in several colors, and can usually be found at craft stores.
    • This drawing is small enough to be done in a brief sitting, and can even be a single set of colors.
  1. Process: Journey Drawing

Materials:

  • Paper: Bristol, watercolor, or mixed media (6×6 or larger)
  • Collage materials, or a material you enjoy (fabric, craft papers, natural materials, etc.)
  • Chalk/oil pastels, pencil, watercolor

Where are you in this journey? Emotionally … physically . . .personally . . . socially? Is there stuckness . . . is there movement? What colors, shapes, textures represent where you are right now? What colors feel supportive of your journey or give you strength? What emotions are present for you about your current life, about being a caregiver? Can you think of any supportive guides/helpers that you have met along the way? How has your identity or personality been challenged or changed in this process? Who in your life is accepting these changes, who in your life are having difficulty accepting the changes?

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? If you had a chance to respond to it, what kinds of responses are you having? Are you in a different place in your journey than you assumed/thought/hoped? What are the qualities of where you feel you are in your journey as a caregiver? As you have moved through different stages, what has each stage offered you?

Lastly, choose a color that feels strengthening, a color that will help you move into the next stage of your journey. Now create a final piece of you drawing that will offer you strength and power when you look at it.  Be one of the helpers for yourself in this moment of your journey.

6. Process: Breath Drawing

Materials:

  • Oil pastels or chalk pastels
  • Large paper
  • Your breath
    With one color in each hand, draw your breath. Notice the qualities of your in breath (short, stunted, deep, long, interrupted, fast, shallow) and allow your hands and the colors to express it. Same with the exhale. What are the qualities present in your out breath? Move each hand/arm in a circular motion with the expression, notice how the lines change over time. Notice similarities and any shifts. Follow your own breath with soft awareness.

What has this process, or your imagery expressed to you? What kinds of responses are you having?


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Why you should throw away that antipsychotic drug prescribed for your loved one

Elderly woman taking a medicineAccording to Human Rights Watch in an average week, nursing facilities in the United States administer antipsychotic drugs to over 179,000 people who do not have diagnoses for which the drugs are approved. Often, these drugs are dispensed like candy, without free and informed consent. . . without a family member or someone who holds durable power of attorney for the health care resident, to make a decision based on the benefits and risks of taking the medication.

Like my late husband, most of the patients who are given these drugs have some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  My husband was in a memory care home for two years. Towards the end of his illness, he was given an antipsychotic drug because his behavior became “difficult.” He was not combative, and he was mostly non-ambulatory. Once, though, while sitting, he swung out his arm and hit a woman who was bothering him. Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details. But in general, he was a sweet man up until the end. He did get annoyed, however, by other residents’ behavior. And so he was given a drug to pacify him. After visiting him over a period of a few weeks and noticing the deterioration in his overall wellbeing, including his inability to hold his head up, sit upright, or staying awake most of the day, I demanded that he be taken off a number of drugs. The improvement was dramatic and astounding.

According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis, facilities often use antipsychotic drugs to control common symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These drugs are associated with clinically significant adverse effects, including death. Then why are they being prescribed to an extremely vulnerable, frail and “at risk” population? Because disruptive behaviors such as crying out “help me, help me” over a long period of time, or yelling out profanities, or exhibiting aggressive behavior can become a nuisance that caregivers –professional and family–are either not skilled in addressing or are too busy taking care of other patients to be bothered with.

What are the alternatives?

First:

  • Eliminate noise and disruption.
  • Make sure the patient does not have a urinary tract infection.
  • Evaluate physical needs. Is s/he thirsty, hungry, constipated, etc?
  • Encourage the patient to verbalize feelings and needs, if possible.
  • Limit or reduce caffeine.
  • Reduce external stimuli (loud TV or radio, etc.).
  • Dim the lighting.
  • Avoid confrontation and use a soft, sweet speaking voice.
  • Provide companionship.
  • Identify events or issues that trigger behaviors.

Once you know the patient is safe and free from pain due to an infection, create a calm and beautiful environment.

Creating a beautiful space

  • Maintain a clean environment without clutter.
  • Enjoy a vase of fresh flowers.
  • Burn incense to clear and purify the air, unless the smoke or odor is irritating.
  • Paint the walls a color that rejuvenates the spirit. For instance, green is healing and relaxing, red restores vitality in people who are depressed, and purple is powerful for those who need spiritual and emotional healing.
  • Gather gemstones. They exert healing effects. Lithium quartz is said to ease tension and stress, and keep nightmares at bay. Pink Calcite promotes compassion, healing, and universal love. Amethyst is for protection, purification, and spiritual/divine connection.
  • Listening to calming sounds can relax a tense body within minutes. Consider a wind chime, water fountain, or a CD of singing birds, ocean waves, or falling rain.]
  • Use essential oils or aromatherapy to have a specific effect on the body, mind, and spirit. (See Aromatherapy, Chapter 18 in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.”)
  • Create an outdoor sacred space with river rocks, a koi or lily pond, a flowering tree or shrub, pampas grass, colored sand—the possibilities are endless.
  • Include religious symbols, chakra symbols, animal totems, prayer flags, angel statues, rainbow banners, and lamps with colored bulbs.

Herbal remedies

  • A nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system.  Nervines are especially useful during times of stress because they have a strong relaxing and calming effect without producing a dulling, “hang-over” side effect.  They also tone and restore the nervous system to a more balanced state.  Some nervines are also anti-spasmodic, meaning they relax the peripheral nerves and the muscle tissue, which in turn has a relaxing effect on the whole system.
  • The main types of nervines are tonics, relaxants, and stimulants.
  • Nervine Tonics – are particularly helpful for strengthening the nervous system and restoring balance. In addition to having a relaxing effect, they have a vaso-dilating action on the blood vessels of the brain.  This increases oxygen availability to brain cells and helps with mental agility and mood.
  • Nervine Relaxants – are especially beneficial for short-term use, for example in treating mild depression or acute anxiety. “This group of nervines are most important in times of stress and confusion, alleviating many of the accompanying symptoms. They should always be used in a broad holistic way, not simply to tranquillize.  Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weigh heavily on the whole nervous system,” says renown herbalist David Hoffman.
  • Nervine Stimulants– are used as a restorative “pick-me-up” when you need an energetic boost without that revved up feeling produced by caffeine.
  • Recommended nervines:
  • Passion flower- helps soothe anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and helps alleviate anger and lower blood pressure.
  • Skullcap – is antispasmodic and relaxing and is recommended to relieve headaches, mood swings, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and nervous tension and exhaustion.
  • The next time your loved one is  feeling nervous, agitated, restless or hyped up, try calming him/her with a nervine herb or aromatherapy. If your loved one is on medication, please check with the physician to make sure the drugs do not interact with the nervine herbs.

Other ways to help a person with dementia relax and feel calm without the use of antipsychotic drugs.

  • Aromatherapy
  • Music
  • Pet therapy
  • Horticulture therapy
  • Color therapy

For detailed information on all of the above, read  “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia”

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