What's My Alternative: Precription Drugs for Alzheimer's

By Nicole Duncan

For Joyce Potter, a 73-year-old in Lutherville, Maryland, simple tasks like buttoning her shirt or tying her shoes have become impossible thanks to her Alzheimer’s diagnosis three years ago. In addition to memory loss, the disease has affected her muscle memory and coordination. She says she is often confused and struggles with depression as a result.

The Conventional Rx: Potter was given a prescription for cholinesterase inhibitors, drugs shown to prevent memory loss from progressing as quickly as it otherwise would, as well as an antidepressant—both of which made her feel sleepy and lethargic.

The Alternative Rx: Once a week, Potter attends therapeutic art class, where she paints, draws, sculpts, or takes photos along with others struggling with Alzheimer’s. The instructor, Elizabeth Cockey, teaches her patients how to relearn the creative process—for example, how to grip a paintbrush and how to stroke it across a canvas.

“Art therapy helps patients regain muscle memory because it actively engages both hemispheres of the brain,” explains Cockey. “When a patient habitually performs hand-eye–coordinated activities—something most artistic endeavors involve—her brain forms new branches of neurons, which equate to building new memories,” she says. “Also, the act of creating art reinforces a patient’s sensory memories—feelings and emotions associated with events.” Working with different types of art also helps Alzheimer’s patients develop pattern recognition, which transfers to recognizing and remembering certain features in someone’s face.

The outcome: “My art classes haven’t just improved how I feel, they’ve empowered me to believe I can get better,” says Potter. Within six months of attending Cockey’s one-hour art therapy class once a week, Potter’s attention span grew from about three seconds to 30 minutes. Learning how to paint again also helped her regain coordination—she can button her shirt and tie her shoes again. Even better, she depends less on her medications and is better able to recognize her friends and loved ones. “Also, seeing my paintings on the wall gives me a sense of accomplishment and happiness.”