Mary Crescenzo: How the Arts Can Foster Connection and Communication with persons with dementia and Parkinson’s.

An interview with Mary Crescenzo: How the Arts Can Foster Connection and Communication with persons with dementia and Parkinson’s on February 26, 2024 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.



Mary Crescenzo is recipient of a 2022 Maude’s Award for Innovations in Alzheimer’s Care which honors her pioneer work in arts engagement through her multidisciplinary approach and development of Care Through the Arts℠ She is the author of The Planet Alzheimer’s Guide: 8 Ways the Arts Can Transform the Life of Your Loved One and Your Own, and playwright of Planet A, about the inner world of Alzheimer’s.


April, 2024, Mary will be a speaking at the 36th Global Conference of Alzheimer’s Disease International in Krakow, Poland in April, on “How Theatre as Art and Public Forum Can Foster Dementia Awareness”.


She has created and facilitates creative writing workshops for caregivers, and persons with early stages of dementia and others with special needs, entitled, “Self-Care Through Creative Writing for Caregivers: Respite, Relaxation, Rejuvenation & Revelation.


She also co-hosts a monthly radio interview podcast feature entitled, Dementia and the Arts™ on Alzheimer’s Speaks with host Lori La Bey. Mary is a public speaker on the arts and Alzheimer’s, and self-care for caregivers utilizing the arts; a multidisciplinary artist strategist and practitioner; and consultant for families of persons with dementia and dementia-friendly organizations on how the arts can enrich both the lives of the caregivers and the family members with this disorder.  She has a BA in Arts Education, CUNY; Graduate studies in Art Therapy, College of New Rochelle; and a MA in Liberal Studies, University of Oklahoma.  Mary is also a Jazz singer who performs at various Los Angeles venues, private events, and at older adult communities with her band, MC3.


Please tell me a little about your background. 


I have been engaging in all the arts for as long as I can remember.  It has always come natural for me and I have always loved to include others in engaging in this natural impulse we all have to create.  In my adult life, I’ve been professionally involved in all of the arts.  I have been a freelance arts strategist and arts practitioner since the late 1970’s when I transitioned from teaching various art disciplines (visual art, voice, dance, creative writing, poetry) to all ages in school and college settings.  As a master teaching artist, I was invited to be an original roster member of Lifetime Arts, and selected to be part of a committee for candidate review of teaching artists for this non-profit organization.   At the same time, I continued my work as an arts practitioner and cultural worker for arts councils around the U.S., and as an programming arts consultant for older adult communities.  I’m also the founder of Care Through the Arts℠


Can you tell me more about your organization?


My organization, Care Through the Arts℠, approaches arts engagement through a multidisciplinary, intergenerational lens, that focuses on person-based, non-judgmental, fluid guidance and care through arts experiences for carers and those they care for.   Along with Lori La Bey, founder of Alzheimer’s Speaks, I am the cohost of Dementia and the Arts™ on her radio podcasts where we interview persons with dementia who make art. I continue my advocacy for all older adults and those with cognitive decline as a speaker at conferences, as a facilitator of self-care workshops through creative writing, as producer and director of my play, Planet A, about the inner world of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and do book talks on my how-to book for caregivers, entitled,

The Planet Alzheimer’s Guide: 8 Ways the Arts Can Transform the Life of Your Loved One and Your Own.



Cast of Planet A, about the inner world of dementia. (with Talk Back)


What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure? 


My passion is to share how the arts can be an alternative, complementary means to foster, through person-centered nonjudgement and fluid guidance, stimulation, focus, relaxation and joy along with connection and communication for both those who are cared for as well as the carer.  My awareness of Parkinson’s happened when I began decades ago working with persons with different forms of dementia.  I encountered those who, at the same time, were also living with Parkinson’s. The use of arts engagement proved to have the same positive outcomes with these individuals.  Back in the mid 90’s, the first person I had met who had Parkinson’s along with dementia was a woman named Kathryn.  She had previously worked as a church organist for many years.  When I arrived at the group home where she lived, she was often joyfully and flawlessly playing the piano.  She didn’t need sheet music in front of her; the music was present in her as muscle memory.  She also loved to paint houses and flowers with watercolors in our sessions together.  When she painted and played the piano, her tremors disappeared. Kathryn and others whom I met in those days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I lived and worked at the time, inspired me to write my play, Planet A.


What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working with you? 


Presently, I only work with formal and informal caregivers of those with dementia as well as those with Parkinson’s, so I will speak to the goals of the caregivers whom I work with.  The goals of these caregivers are to better connect with those they care for.  I provide opportunities for them to find connections through the arts but also to discover creative ways to find respite, relaxation, rejuvenation and revelation for themselves as they face their daily challenges as care partners.  All the arts can provide this – you don’t have to be an artist to engage in art – but the most accessible are singing to your favorite songs, listening to music and keeping a journal of your feelings, your goals, your hopes, your pain in the form of prose or poetry.


What type of training and how long are the programs?


Participants need no formal training to be part of my workshops.  They just need the desire and willingness to open up to creative ways to deal with the complex emotions caregiving brings. Workshops can run from one hour to ninety minutes.  They can be in person or on Zoom.  I prefer to work through an organization to facilitate these workshops.  I also facilitate my workshops at caregiver retreats for writing and reflection as self-care.


What effect can it have on an individual with Parkinson’s?


If caregivers are more relaxed, rested, engaged, and encouraged and excited by making art, they will bring that arts experience energy, confidence and joy to the time they spend with persons living with Parkinson’s, dementia or any special needs outside and inside of time they bring art to the table as part of their caregiving routine.


What would you like to see as a future goal for your programs?


To share ways to experience arts engagement with all caregivers and to all of those with special needs, and illustrate how we can benefit from the self-expression and creativity that lives in each of us.


What events do you participate in?


I have participated in fundraisers such as “The Longest Day” (Alzheimer’s Association) where I was awarded status as “Solstice Champion” for the amount of money I raised.   I stage my play, Planet A, about the inner world of Alzheimer’s, followed by a Talk Back and mini-writing workshop for audience members.  I give book talks on my book and always include a mini-writing workshop with the goal of getting feelings out on paper.  In addition, I consider each segment of Dementia and the Arts™ I co-host with Lori La Bey as an event to be shared with all of her followers as a learning and empowering experience.


Mary facilitating a creative writing workshop for caregivers in writing and reflection

at the Caregiver Retreat for the Caregiver Resource Center, Orange Co. CA


How does this also assist the caregivers?


The more they understand how anyone can engage in the arts, the more they feel comfortable using arts as a tool for connection and communication as they allow their creative spirit to fly.  I always address the caregivers as “the experts” because they are one-on-one, first hand in care management.  Both those with this disease and those who care for them should be afforded dignity and validation.  My methods provide both, along with the opportunity for sustainability of engaging in arts experiences.


How can someone get in touch?  What is your website?


This is a “contact me” button on the website.  I will answer all emails personally.


How can others also become advocates for awareness? 


Attend support groups – don’t give up until you find one that suits you. Spread the word of dignity for all, even those with Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s; don’t be afraid of trying art experiences with your loved one, but remember not to judge and offer fluid guidance.  Make it fun.  No wrong answers.  See what happens!


How do the arts work for alternative connection and communication?


Self-expression is a natural, innate urge for creativity in everyone, all ages.  I like to call it the “creative spirit” in all of us.  Once you are open to this, you will find yourself as you enter the art experience, in the moment where the joy of making something from nothing exists. Your unique expression tells your story, even if you have cognitive decline.


In your opinion what is the key to effective advocacy? 


Show don’t tell. Lead by example, don’t judge. Instead, educate, gather together in support of each other, bust the myths through your actions and experiences, and share your experience with kindness.


How can we better fundraise to support a cure for Parkinson’s? 


Through community connections, by talking to your neighbor about what you know about Parkinson’s, by turning thought into actions.


What other activities do you undertake to help improve and support your daily living? 


For exercise, I use weight training and long walks.  As a great outlet, I have a Jazz band called, MC3, and play for private or public events, in venues, but also in community care facilities for older adults?


Why should people who don’t have Parkinson’s care about this? 


Not only because anyone can get this disease, but because we must understand what Parkinson’s is about so we can interact with those who may have this disease with kindness and understanding.


Have you had any family members or relatives affected by Parkinson’s disease?


If you had one song that would tell us more about you or represent your life, which song would it be?


Great question!  If I may, I have two.  “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Broadway musical, Carousel written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg, from the film, The Wizard of Oz.


If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson’s community, what would it be? 


I would have to quote my mentor, Mel Lee, whom I worked with when I began using arts engagement with persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia in the mid 1070’s: “Don’t miss out on the beauty of a spirit not gone.”