Title: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Dose of Donepezil?”: Cultural Arts Interventions in Dementia Care Research
Author(s): Kate de Medeiros and Anne Basting
Publisher: The Gerontologist, 54(3)
Topics: Arts participation, older adults, dementia, arts therapy
Methods: Literature review (of systematic reviews)
What it says: This article reviews 27 systematic and integrative reviews of pharmacologic, psychosocial and cultural arts interventions in dementia care for older adults. (The authors use philosopher Susanne K. Langer’s 1966 definition of cultural arts as “the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive of human feeling,” accounting for the role of imagination more so than the outward senses.) Although individual studies of cultural arts interventions demonstrate positive outcomes, most are excluded from systematic reviews due to weaknesses in research design, such as small sample sizes and the lack of randomization or control groups. Only reviews published in English between January 2000 and September 2012 were included. Studies that didn’t involve humans or focused on biological aspects of dementia were excluded.
The authors grouped results of pharmacologic, psychosocial and cultural arts interventions into three categories: 1) cognition; 2) problematic behaviors or symptoms, such as agitation, anxiety or apathy; and 3) quality of life. Drug trials involving donepezil led to improvements in cognitive function and self-reported quality of life for people with mild to moderate dementia. Otherwise, pharmacologic interventions demonstrated minimal benefit in dementia care compared to psychosocial and cultural arts interventions. Psychosocial interventions involving cognitive training and stimulation led to improvements in cognition, and those involving reminiscence led to improvements in autobiographical memory. A wide variety of psychosocial interventions such as aromatherapy, group validation, and reminiscence were most effective in reducing problematic behaviors such as wandering, irritability, and disruptiveness, respectively. Some also led to improvements in quality of life, as reported by people with dementia and their caregivers.
There were no cultural arts interventions included in the studies that adequately measured changes in cognition. Some music therapies led to reduction in problematic behaviors such as irritability, aggressiveness, agitation, and inappropriate vocalization, although application of the therapies varied widely. One study involving visual arts interventions distinguished between individual and group activities, noting higher levels of fear and verbal agitation for people with dementia assigned to individual art projects compared to those in weekly art classes. Results regarding improvements in self-reported quality of life varied widely for cultural arts interventions, with many facing methodological limitations. Those involving dance/movement therapy found increases in communication and quality of life as reported by participants and their caregivers, however, no validated assessment tools were used. One study involving storytelling similarly demonstrated improvements in communication and “expressions of pleasure,” but no significant change in wellbeing. Although lacking standardized outcome measures, visual arts interventions demonstrated similar improvements in participants’ expressions of pleasure. Music interventions also had positive outcomes, such as increases in self-reported quality of life, but with limitations in sample sizes, non-validated measures, and poorly defined outcomes.
The authors note that reviews were selected for inclusion based on topic, so the quality of individual studies was not evaluated. In addition, the authors clearly indicate inconsistencies amongst reviews, such as definitions of key outcomes, variability in measures used, and the level of detail offered in each study. Based on their review, the authors conclude that the quality of a study should be based on what is being measured and how, rather than its adherence to randomized controlled trial designs, since the latter does not necessarily capture changes in affect or meaningfulness. The authors also call for the consideration of the individual nature of cultural arts, noting that outcomes may differ significantly from person to person, but also note the importance of including the larger social network of people with dementia that play a role in improving their social connectedness.
What I think about it:
Although measures vary widely and findings are not suitable for direct comparison, this review is helpful in situating arts interventions among a broader pool of interventions for treating dementia, most of which are medically oriented. Much like other studies investigating the health impacts of arts and cultural participation, the authors point to the need for improved research designs. Perhaps the most notable takeaway from this review is the recommendation to move away from interventions that fall into the boundaries of traditional arts disciplines, and towards better understanding what the actual activities comprise, how they’re delivered, and to whom specifically. In other words, the priority should not be to determine which art form is most effective but instead, seeking clarity around what exactly it is that the arts offer in this realm that non-arts interventions with similar characteristics do not.
What it all means:
Given the relative weakness of drug interventions in this review, overall findings begin to suggest that cultural arts and psychosocial interventions may be viable alternatives to drug treatment. It offers a broad perspective of promising outcomes for people with dementia, and asks important questions about whether or not the clinical trial model suits arts interventions. This is consistent with the methodological limitations cited in the Cultural Value Project, namely its recommendation to better understand where rigorous qualitative methods, which are often more suitable for arts interventions, might fit within traditional hierarchies of evidence that prize RCTs. An appropriate next step would be to design research studies that begin to answer the what, how, and who questions previously outlined by de Medeiros and Basting.