The transformative power of art in palliative care patients

The transformative power of art in palliative care patients

Art can often express what is difficult in words. This was the case of Carles Olivier, who died on July 20, 2019, twelve months after being diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain tumor. His story is just one of 700 who have undergone the art therapy program offered by the Palliative Care Unit of the Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona since 2012 with the support of the Mimura Foundation, which collaborates in other projects of this kind. For more than ten years. A complementary treatment that has proven to be very effective in improving the quality of life of patients and their relatives at a sensitive moment in the end-of-life process.


Carles joined the program weeks before his death and after undergoing other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or immunotherapy. Before admission, he had great sensitivity to music, but visual arts were never part of his daily life. “He had a remarkable ear and played many musical instruments,” says Carla Islas-Beck, partner and mother of his twin daughters. “The art therapy sessions were the most anticipated moment of the day during his stay in palliative care. For him, this was a way to express his feelings. A space for self-care, intimacy, meditation as well as connection with his closest beings,” he adds.

Benefits of art therapy

Various studies conducted in the Palliative Care Unit of Saint Pau Hospital and published in scientific journals have shown that after this intervention there is an improvement in physical symptoms such as pain, as well as on the emotional level, reducing nervousness, frustration and fatigue. Discomfort.

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“One of the most important benefits is the change in the focus of participants’ attention, from constant attention to their physical condition or problems arising from hospitalization, to their ability to create artistically, which they often had not previously experienced,” says Nadia Collet, art therapist in the multidisciplinary team in the palliative care unit. At Saint Pau Hospital: “They had the opportunity to explore. They also feel more relaxed and can express their feelings through their creativity.”

This complementary therapy, according to the results, works at the same time on different levels of the person having sensory, emotional, cognitive and spiritual experiences. “It is very likely that these influences play a 'holistic' role in companionable people. It is the idea of ​​universal attention. We must continue to investigate to strengthen this evidence,” the art therapist points out.

Patient transformation

Art therapy sessions are adapted to the moment and the situation of the person participating. “The goal is to find what the person would find useful to explore through the basic visual arts materials that the professional brings into the rooms. Depending on the person's needs and emotional state, certain creative materials and suggestions may be more appropriate,” he says. Colette.


It also impresses with the patient's development throughout the sessions. “The works were very different from each other depending on the feelings that were prevailing at each moment. There were some very colorful works, with rounded, cheerful shapes. In cool colors. And others with more solid strokes, in warm colors, as Carla recalls. For his part, he points out Colette notes that the transformation of works is a reflection of the transformation of their authors. “The person develops by increasingly linking his creativity to the fruits that he can draw from it,” asserts the art therapist at the Barcelona Hospital.

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The role of families

Art therapy is also a way to help families. Carles' partner recalls that “with the works he was drawing in his sessions, his hospital room was decorated, which contributed to a more welcoming and cheerful personal space, and this, in a way, had a positive effect on everyone's morale.” “From us who accompanied him.”

But it was also a way to communicate with the closer environment. Carla remembers two moments in particular. “At a very advanced stage of his illness and with very little strength, he painted together with Tora and Fiona – our two daughters – a work in which they shared strokes and emotions. He also did it one day with his father, with whom he had not always had much communication, and for both of them it was a new form A form of communication they found very comfortable.”

Art therapy and artwork can also help with the grieving process. “On many occasions, the creations of dead loved ones represent a valuable heirloom for relatives, because they remember that in the midst of the cruelty of the end of life, the traces of color that remain are a testimony to the value of life,” says Collett. “A good end of life is the first step to a good grieving process for the people who will remain,” point out their part from the Mimura Foundation, which cooperates in this type of project with the aim of working on the end of life before death.

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