Angel Duncan ‘00 Merges Science and Art in Work With Alzheimer’s Patients

April 1, 2019

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A liberal arts education paved the road for alumna Angel Duncan ’00 and her work in art therapy. As a clinician and director of education at the Neuropsychiatric Research Center of Southwest Florida, Duncan’s work with Alzheimer’s patients merges science and art.

While she admits her initial interest at Texas Lutheran University was in marketing and graphic design, the art major and theatre minor first realized how she could use creativity to connect with special populations after teaching a homeschooled child with Asperger’s on the autism spectrum.

“He had a hard time expressing himself so I built art into his curriculum and interesting things began coming out,” she said. “This was a boy with lots of family trauma and he was also in speech therapy, but I saw how it really helped him. Shortly after, I went to Northern California for graduate school and started working in art therapy with kids. I needed field hours so I went across the street to the Alzheimer’s facility to see if they wanted volunteers. I became part of the Memories in the Making program with the Alzheimer’s Association and I loved it.”

That led to an internship at Stanford University’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital and now, 17 years later, Duncan is also the executive arts director at the Cognitive Dynamics Foundation and serves on the Research Committee member at the American Art Therapy Association. She says this was all possible because of her liberal arts background.

“It’s really how I maneuvered my way into this and also becoming a journal peer reviewer and author,” she said. “I’m of course a huge advocate for art and music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.”

Duncan is close friends with social worker Dan Cohen, the subject of Alive Inside—a documentary exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Cohen is the founder of Music And Memory, a nonprofit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.

“While music is the most researched when it comes to this type of therapy, art is starting to catch up,” she said. “I play music while my patients are doing art and it resonates with them. The reason I love Dan’s program so much is because people use their own playlist so they can paint and process it. Memories even begin forming from their childhood. For example, I had one woman who painted an apple tree and started talking about her mother and the apple juice, cider, and pies they would make. That led to a memory about her being a principal in Baltimore.”

Duncan said another woman stopped painting for about six months and it worried her children. However, when she gave her headphones and music played, she came alive and started bouncing in her chair.

“I handed her a paintbrush and asked her, ‘What color do you see?’ and she started painting red zig zags and then different colors for different songs," Duncan said. "Her children were so excited to see this and I found out she had actually been an artist her whole life. The therapy brought one gentleman right back to college in Columbus, Ohio. He was painting a still life of flowers and he painted two candlesticks and called it 'The Date Night.' This whole story came out about how he met his wife. You get to see the visual that they’re experiencing and a visual of what the music is reminding them of. There are so many arts and crafts out there, but nothing really getting through to the personhood like art therapy,”

Art therapy can also benefit a patient’s family by reducing stress levels.

“Whether it’s a nurse or a family member, they’re stressed out,” Duncan said. “It’s calming for them, too. I have a patient whose wife and adult daughter have told me that it helps reduce their stress. When you’re able to take care of yourself you can be a better caregiver.”

Duncan has also seen how families will start talking about memories and reminiscing.

“Through the disease, spouses become caregivers,” she said. “With the art therapy, they get to be a husband and wife connecting or a father and daughter connecting. My patients are actually very self-aware and know their surroundings. Art, especially, music is one of the best medical modalities. It taps into what science cannot. If physicians would take the time to work with people and not just prescribe a pill, they would learn things they don’t know. Why is it that art or music can bring things out that we can’t find?”

While attending a recent seminar, Duncan noticed they opened by discussing art therapy and that she’s beginning to see shifts within the medical field over the last eight to 10 years.

“It reminded us as neuroscientists that we’re working with people and not just the disease,” she said. “These are humans and we’re giving them their dignity back. Some professionals want to look just at the MRI scans, but you can also track changes with their artwork. I’ve been in the field for 17 years and we’ve really seen art therapy embraced within the last five.”

At the upcoming Annual US-SINO Forum of Psychological Aging in China, Duncan will present, “Why Creativity is Important on The Aging Brain,” from a neurological and psychological perspective on behalf of the Gerontological Society of America.

“They have mandated laws in China, Japan, New Zealand, etc., and regularly host conferences on aging,” she said. “Their representatives are talking about dementia and Alzheimer’s and their government is also mandating that. I think the U.S. can learn a lot from these cultures. They see their elderly as wise and treat them with dignity. Dementia isn’t a shameful thing. It’s a disease that needs to be spoken about.”

As an obvious proponent of combining science and art, Duncan is an advocate for liberal arts education.

“Science needs art,” she said. “TLU really got me to see life in gray and not just black and white. I got that from my art and theatre courses, but it was also talked about in my science and history classes. My religion courses gave me a perspective on different cultures. The liberal arts encourage us to be well-rounded and to explore. My education at TLU exposed me to a whole other world that helped me develop and grow as a person.”

Article Written by TLU's Office of Marketing and Communications 

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