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  • Dorothy Mackintosh


The role of art therapy in palliative care

Art therapy and art as therapy became my life line after my own diagnosis of cancer six weeks after arriving in Canada. I experienced first-hand the healing and catharsis that art therapy and art as therapy provides. I love to spend time working in my art journals, painting, and learning new art techniques as a way of taking care of myself, working out solutions to difficult problems and simply enjoying the creative process.

My background is in nursing, working in both Scotland and Australia. In 2015, I made the decision to change my career path and go back to school to become an art therapist. This has been one of the best decisions that I have made. I love what I am doing, and I see every day just how much of an impact art therapy makes to people from all walks of life.

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes an individual’s own creative process in order to improve their overall sense of well-being. It can take many forms – including drawing, painting, sculpting, and fabric arts. Within palliative care, art therapy supports people in many different ways. Through the use of art making, people are able to release emotions and anxieties leading to a sense of catharsis, and so improving their quality of life.

One of the main aims of art therapy and the creation of art is to support people to make sense of their current situation and give meaning to their lives. Maintaining a sense of self is a key element at the end of life and making meaning through the creative process can be a profound and healing experience for many. Creating means empowerment.

For some people, art therapy provides an opportunity to adjust to the effects of their diagnosis and the way that the illness has changed their lives. For example, if a person has lost their independence, taking an active role in the art making may increase feelings of empowerment and self-worth. The art also becomes tangible evidence of a life that is still worth living. Many people at this stage of their lives feel motivated to resolve and heal personal issues, with the art therapist becoming their compassionate witness. Art as legacy is a meaningful way for us to leave a part of ourselves behind for those that we love and can lead to feelings of calm acceptance and a readiness to move on. It can help caregivers too.

Art therapy can also give essential support to the families and staff who give so much of themselves while in the care-giving role. For families and staff alike, art therapy is an outlet for emotional expression and self-care, which can help prevent them from burning out. For families, being able to create art with or about their loved one can help with the healing process, as well as leaving them with precious memories and a sense of peace. It is important to remember that making art is not about being a “great artist”, it’s all about the process and the relief and enjoyment that it can bring.

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