old lady painting

Out of the many precious faculties that dementia robs from a person, artistic ability does not seem to be one of them! While a person with dementia may think the same thoughts or carry the same fears, the ability to transmit those thoughts and feelings diminishes as the disease worsens. Communication is one of the early losses in a person with dementia, yet creative expression could be the key that unlocks what dementia keeps so painfully inaccessible.

Recent studies show promising results for dementia patients whose artistic ability has allowed them to communicate with loved ones and caregivers. One such study focused on internationally renowned sculptor Mary Hecht before her death in April 2013. Hecht’s artistic abilities were renowned before her battle with dementia, but what doctors found fascinating was her propensity to draw detailed sketches and portraits, all from memory, in the years leading up to her death. This was all in spite of a severe case of vascular dementia.

Due to her previous strokes, Hecht was bound to a wheelchair. Her cognitive ability was so impaired that she couldn’t reproduce the correct time in a simple drawing of a clock; she also couldn’t remember any of the words she was asked to recall or name common animals. Yet she was able to reproduce from memory a drawing she had done free-handedly moments earlier. She also drew a detailed portrait of a research assistant at the hospital’s memory care clinic.

Mary Hecht was a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved in spite of the degeneration of the brain and a loss in

the more mundane, day-to-day memory functions.

         Communicating What Words Can’t!

Cases similar to Hecht’s abound in memory care facilities practicing art therapy.  It seems that art therapy enables an individual who is having trouble communicating to bypass the language problems they may be having and communicate and express themselves in a different way. Art and music seem to draw from many different regions of the brain, communication pathways are rerouted away from traditional means and the production of art appears to bypass some of the other problems of dementia.

While these forms of therapy cannot cure a person’s dementia, they can offer substantial rewards that a person may not otherwise receive in such an impaired state. These come from personal accomplishments, the satisfaction of completion, and simply the joy of the artistic process.

Berna Huebner, author of “I remember better when I paint” and Eric Ellena have crafted a poignant documentary about hope in a world where hope is seldom found.

Cairn Park Owner and CEO Stu Gaines a current board member of the Alzheimer’s Association was recently invited to represent the Alzheimer’s Association at a select showing of the documentary and had the opportunity to meet with Berna.  See photo below.

berna stu corp 2015.8

I Remember Better When I Paint” follows the progress of persons with Alzheimer’s who are introduced to the creative arts. Once disconnected from the world, these dealing with the challenges 0f Alzheimer’s disease are suddenly brought back– be it by a discussion of a Seurat painting or a debate over what color to apply for their Renoir reproduction.

It is easy to think of people with dementia as elderly persons spaced-out in front of a television set, and yet the documentary shows Skip Curtis a man actively engaged in his community suddenly subject to severe memory loss and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 59. The documentary begins with him and his wife in a doctor’s office discussing experimental treatments to slow the effects of his Alzheimer’s. The couple holds hands as they share their disappointment with conventional treatments and their openness to try alternative remedies. We see Skip struggle to remember his experience with pharmaceuticals and his wife encouragingly filling in the gaps. This is one of the many moving moments in a film about the human spirit and the fight to keep it alive.

The myth about Alzheimer’s is that it is a veritable death sentence. That once diagnosed, a person will ultimately deteriorate into an unrecognizable shell of his/her former self. But as the filmmakers demonstrate, this need not be the case. The creative arts can reunite even a late stage Alzheimer’s sufferer with parts of his/her former self. These non-medicinal options render success rates comparable to their pharmaceutical counter-parts. Indeed, art therapy can provide outlets of expression for a person with Alzheimer’s where conventional means of expression prove insufficient.

I Remember Better When I Paint” is narrated by Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland (of Gone with the Wind) and features a stirring interview with Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of acclaimed American actress, and Alzheimer’s sufferer, Rita Hayworth, who took up painting while struggling with the disease and produced beautiful works of art also featured in the film.

Cairn Park supports and incorporates this philosophy of integration of the arts into its programs.  Stu Gaines a Cairn Park partner and  CEO states “We believe that participation in the creative arts by our residents promotes health and well- being by stimulating curiosity and self-evaluation, by encouraging individuals to express themselves in meaningful ways, and by affirming their dignity and self-worth.”

Creative arts are practices that can allow a person with dementia to express their true self when they otherwise can’t.