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Healing through art
Therapist uses creative materials to address physical, emotional issues
art therapy
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For an older adult with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, the world can be a confusing place. As the disease progresses, they slowly lose the ability to think logically and make complex decisions for themselves. They sometimes can’t communicate with their caregiver or explain what is going on inside their head.

Art therapy can give dementia patients the ability to express how they are feeling in a non-verbal way.

”..the appreciation of a beautiful picture, the ability to recall and sing a song, or the ability to read and enjoy a poem are still there,” said Cynthia Wilson, a photographer and art therapist specializing in older adult therapy.

Wilson uses art therapy and photo therapy to help older adults deal with the stress associated with life changes. These changes can be anything from dealing with life after retirement, the death of a partner or coping with living in an assisted living facility for the first time.

”It’s a fun and innovative way of finding a coping mechanism,” Wilson said.

One of the ways that Wilson helps clients through art therapy is the use of directed art work. For example, she might give a newly retired client chalk, pastels or crayons and ask them to “draw what it’s like to be your age.”

”Giving them this art material gives them a way to express themselves,” Wilson said.

Directed art is also used by Wilson and other Art Therapists working with people who are confused by their feelings and need help identifying the problem. Wilson used the example of stroke victims who lose feeling in one side of the body. She said it is not uncommon for these people to draw themselves with missing limbs. The missing body parts can help Wilson and the clients understand that they have feelings regarding their paralysis that they need to deal with.

”They don’t even realize that they left out body parts until I point it out,” Wilson said.

Art therapists can not only help a client identify a problem, they can help them work through it. Wilson uses photo therapy with some of her older patients. For example, she might show them a group of pictures and ask them to pick the photo that calls to them the most. This presents an opportunity for Wilson to ask her clients questions such as, “Why did you choose this picture? If you were in this picture, where would you be? Who would be with you?” The questions give clients the chance to discover aspects of themselves that they never knew about or memories they have forgotten, Wilson said.

”Your artwork and photography is always trying to tell you something and the art therapist can help you discover what it is that your art is trying to say,” she said.

The art therapist helps clients stay within certain safety boundaries. They work one-on-one or in groups. Wilson recently worked with a group of seniors at a nursing home in Alameda. One woman at the care facility liked art therapy so much that she started creating art on her own. She has branched out from chalk and pastels into oil paintings.

”She’s on a rampage with this artwork,” Wilson said.

Wilson knew that she wanted to be an art therapist when she was a high school student. She wanted to use her love of art in a way that would help people. In college she took gerontology classes and found her niche in helping older adults using art and photo therapy techniques. She received her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy with an Art Therapy Certificate from Notre Dame de Namur University.

Wilson works with groups and individuals, mostly in Modesto and Merced. She said that she hopes to work with more clients in the Turlock area in the future.

For more information about art and photo therapy, visit Wilson’s Web site at

To contact Andrea Goodwin, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2003.