Aug 15, 2013

The Art of Alzheimer's, She Paints

At age 94 and with a short term memory of 3 seconds, my mother Jean may have forgotten nearly everything but for the first time in her life -- she paints.

By +Marilyn Raichle
+Alzheimer's Reading Room

Too many stories about Alzheimer’s begin and end with sorrow and too many people with AD are depicted as empty shells where someone used to be.

But not Mom.

At age 94 and with a short term memory of 3 seconds, my mother Jean may have forgotten nearly everything but for the first time in her life -- she paints.

Mom has no conscious memory of painting and actively resists the idea as ridiculous.

When praised for her work, she laughs and says,
“I must have gotten this from your father’s side of the family.”
But when she forgets to tell herself that she doesn’t “do this,” she is really good -- always interesting -- and sometimes remarkable.

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One look at her art and you can immediately see a mind at work—funny, inventive, full of life and full of joy.

In the early years, Mom painted what she saw on the table of her painting class.

When she saw a flower, she painted a flower...and quite nicely too.

The more she painted, the more fanciful her paintings became.

The subjects on the table—flowers, fruits, vegetables—didn’t change but Mom began to transform them into something completely unexpected and almost always alive.

Gourds became dragons and flowers clowns; a cat materialized inside a vase and, in one stunning example, she completely captured the essence of a gooseneck squash with a gorgeous speckled goose with big orange feet.

Now she paints largely from her mind’s eye.
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More often than not they are perfectly symmetrical and almost always feature a “face.”

 We never know what to expect but the art is fascinating. It provides a window to thoughts and emotions she is unable express any other way.

For the last 4 years, I’ve been producing a calendar featuring Mom’s paintings—with all of our birthdays highlighted. 

First it was just for the immediate family. Soon Mom’s cousins, nieces and nephews wanted them and now it’s a tradition, connecting and enchanting our far-flung family.

My sister in New York can only see Mom twice a year but, with the calendar by her desk, feels her presence every day.

When the birthday of my niece’s boyfriend made it into the calendar, everyone knew it was “serious.” And thanks to Mom, no one forgets to calls people on their birthdays.

Perhaps most important, for a family with both a history and expectation of AD, it shines a light on a new and more hopeful future.

Once my friends and neighbors started asking for calendars, I realized that the art Mom creates is important not just to our family but to any and all who think or worry about ADOD.

Through her art, she vividly illustrates the simple truth that those with ADOD are still here, still valuable members of our families and communities—still with something to share and teach.

When I tell Mom that people like her art, her reaction is one of astonishment—first at the idea that she paints and second at the idea that anyone would like it.

When I tell her that people actually want to collect her work, her reaction is immediate. “They’re crazy!”

But Mom is of a family and a generation for whom being of service is a cardinal virtue. If she only knew how much people enjoy her art, she would be so pleased.

Note from Bob: Sounds like Dotty don't ya think?

Marilyn Raichle writes The Art of Alzheimer’s – How Mother Forgot Nearly Everything and Began to Paint – a blog about her mother Jean, art and Alzheimer’s. Marilyn also works as an arts management consultant in the Greater Seattle area. Also see - The Art of Alzheimer's: 2014 Calendar.

Original content Alzheimer's Reading Room.