World Art Day: Role of Art, Artist and Art Therapy in Palliative Care

Categories: Care, Education, and People & Places.

“If an art installation gets a patient out of his room or paintings take a person’s mind off their pain and lower their stress levels, the art isn’t just decorative anymore. It’s part of the entire model of care.” – Dr Lisa Harris, Indiana University School of Medicine.

Celebrations of World Art Day, which takes place every year on April 15, serve to emphasize the importance of artists for sustainable development, promote a wider understanding of the diversity of artistic expressions, and strengthen the connections between artistic creations and society. It is also an opportunity to highlight arts education in schools and other organizations. According to UNESCO, advancing the arts, advances our efforts to create a free and peaceful society. The date was selected to honour Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday.

Art is a universal language

We all agree that a universal language exists in art. Let’s go back thousands of years ago when humanity painted images on the walls of their caves to tell stories. These images narrate many stories from a period we can only imagine now! During the ages, artists have used sculpture, architecture, paintings, and drawings to communicate history; and today research has proven that a doodled line or a splash of colour can convey the feelings and experiences like joy, grief, anger, and peace.

The role arts and culture can play when they intersect with the health sector is directly impacted by their innate capacity to connect, inspire, and engage at both the individual and community levels. Participating in arts and cultural activities has proven to be crucial for enhancing clinical results and building confidence in those receiving medical treatment. Hence, arts and health professionals must be provided opportunities to share their experiences about the various ways that arts and health interact in order to create awareness.

Art and artists in healthcare settings

Unlike a few decades ago, currently more and more individual artists are more actively involved in healthcare facilities indicating a shift in the role art plays, from being purely aesthetic to being more experiential. There are multiple ways in which artists have been engaging with patients in healthcare facilities. ‘Arts-by-the-bedside’, as the name suggests, brings art activities right to the patients’ bedsides. Artists are introduced to healthcare settings through artist-in-residence programs in a controlled manner for fixed amounts of time, which allows them to integrate into the hospital setting and work closely and compassionately with the patients they serve.

Role of art therapy in medical settings

When we are discussing art, artists, and medical settings, ‘art therapy’ is what we need to talk about. According to the American Art Therapy Association, ‘art therapy’ is an integrative mental health and human services profession that involves the use of active art-making, the related creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience by trained art therapists to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities across settings. Art therapists are trained professionals with a master’s or a higher degree in art therapy, which includes the study of both, psychotherapy and art.

A qualified art therapist can effectively support both individual and relational treatment objectives as well as social issues through art therapy. Art therapy is used to advance societal and ecological change, boost self-esteem and self-awareness, build emotional resilience, encourage insight, improve social skills, and improve cognitive and sensory-motor functioning.

Art therapy in palliative care

Did you know that art therapy can be used efficiently in palliative care settings too? Significant research has proven the efficacy of art therapy in hospices and palliative care centres. A common practice for art therapy in any medical setting would be having individual sessions with the art therapist at the patient’s bedside. However, in a palliative care setting, the challenges can be different and more. Patients may be physically incapable of using their hands or might not be able to sit up. They might be reluctant to engage in art-making due to the effects of illness or fatigue. What happens in such a scenario?

A trained art therapist understands that though the patient is unable to engage in active art-making, creative work will still help the patient. The art therapist in such scenarios will then try other relevant techniques and ways to creatively engage with such patients.

What is ‘art-on-behalf’?

One such technique is ‘art-on-behalf’. When doing ‘art-on-behalf’, the patient directs the art therapist about what the art therapist can make on their behalf. This creative process takes place over several sessions where the patient can ask the art therapist to make some changes to the already created art in subsequent sessions depending on their emotional needs. In this process, the patient feels heard, and in-control of what is happening. Through this process they also become a witness to their thoughts and emotions outside of them, at a safe distance which allows them to process what is happening to them through the image that is developing. In the process, they might develop a deeper insight, a greater capacity for meaning-making, and a fluid awareness and acceptance of the dying process.

The crux of the matter is that art, as research has shown, eases anxiety, stress and depression, not only for the patients, but also for the caretakers and medical staff. It improves the overall experience of being in a clinical setting like hospice and palliative care and makes the environment feel more compassionate.

Living with art until you die

Hence, before the next World Art Day, why don’t we pledge to not only create but also bring more art into our clinical environments? Why not make our medical settings brighter and more vibrant? This quote by Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, sums it up perfectly ― “Endings matter, not just for the person but, perhaps even more, for the ones left behind.”

And art is all it takes to make memories for yourself and your loved ones. So, wherever you are, make art!

About the Author:

Ms Pragati Adhikari is a budding art therapist from MITADT University, Pune. She has trained with BHT-Karunashraya and Rainbow Children’s Hospital, Bangalore.

Prior to this, she was working as an associate editor for Women’s Web, a leading website for women. She is also a certified counsellor, an art therapy practitioner, an artist and a designer.


Note: This article is a republication from the Indian Association of Palliative Care‘s (IAPC) free monthly e-newsletter (May edition).

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