Aug 8, 2016

Alzheimer's Care "The Art of Alzheimer's"

While caring for her mom who lived with dementia Marilyn Raichle opened her heart and opened her mind, when she did, she learned that her mother was capable of more than she could imagine.

The Artist Within in dementia care shows us that Alzheimer's patients are capable of more  than we can imagine.
Marilyn Raichle is a long time contributor to the Alzheimer's Reading Room and a former caregiver for her mom.

While caring for her mom she opened her heart and opened her mind, when she did, she learned that her mother was capable of more than she could imagine.

On her journey Marilyn discovered that her beloved mom, Jean, could paint. It didn't stop there, and as a result, Marilyn has created a remarkable exhibit of art all drawn by persons living with dementia (see the remarkable video below).

How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

By Marilyn Raichle
Alzheimer's Reading Room

I am fond of telling people that one of the most important lessons I learned is to let go of the person they used to be and embrace the wonderful person who is with you now. It’s easy to say but harder to do.

I spoke recently with a friend who told me of visiting her mother who is experiencing memory loss. “I cried every day,” she said.

When I described the need to let go, she totally agreed but there is a difference between agreeing intellectually and getting there emotionally. So what helps? How to begin?

Try taking one small step. Just decide you will not ask her questions she can’t answer. It stresses her and upsets you so just one time give yourself permission to join her in the moment. Let the pressure go away – for both of you.

Now what? Is there something she enjoys that you can share? Games? With my Mom it was scrabble. She loved to play and was a fierce competitor.

“I’m going to beat you at Scrabble” I would say as I set up the board. She would set her jaw and tell me with a gleam in her eye, “Don’t be too sure.” Over time her ability to form words declined but never her enjoyment.

No games? Don’t worry, sometimes just being there is enough. A gentle touch, a soothing voice, a song; be present and just listen. The moment is really quite peaceful when you get the hang of it.

My journey really began art.

An example of dementia patient art from The Art of Alzheimer's
It was so unexpected. Mom completely rejected the idea that that she could or would ever paint.

“Childish,” she would say. But the big hole left in her life after my father’s death needed to be filled and she began going to the Elderwise painting class in Supported Living at Horizon House.

We didn’t expect much. After all she hadn’t painted since grade school. But surprise – she was good and, to me, remarkable.

Each week I looked forward to seeing what she had painted at the previous class and each week discovered that the woman I had written off as fading away was still here, full of wit and invention.

As I spent more time with her, it was me who began to change. I began to relax in the peace of the moment – no worries, no regrets, no deadlines, no hurry – just the moment. I began to meet her neighbors and realized that she had a new family in assisted living, and I could either join them or try to reclaim the past. Over time, I relaxed and learned.

It’s common to think that a person with dementia has nothing to teach us. But they do. Mom taught me patience, the value of touch, of a compliment and a smile; to slow down and listen and adapt my pace to others.

Over the years her artwork began to change and to my eye, it was less interesting – less color, more repetitive, less inventive. So I began to experiment.

In the past, the nurses had escorted Mom and her neighbor Phyllis to the class. Now every week I would arrive with enough time to play with Mom. Scrabble, singing and reciting nursery rhymes (I‘d start and she would finish.) We would march (she liked to sing Onward Christian Soldiers), play with pop-up books, and the xylophone She would ask me the same question over and over and it became a game for me to think of new answers.

Phyllis would join us and when we sang I heard her voice for the first time. She never spoke; she cooed. But she sang with a clear and lovely voice. It was such a treat.

I had to be cagey though. If I escorted Mom to the class too early, she would balk. “I don’t do this,” she would say as she got up to leave.

But if we arrived just as the class began, she would sit down happy to join. Sometimes she would finish her painting quickly, leave and then return. “May I join you?”

A few years ago I began taking photos of the models they were painting. This was prompted the day the model was a red poinsettia in a red vase. What she painted was a fanciful figure in black, blue and yellow with 3 red buttons. From then on I have always taken photos. The transformations are fascinating.

Just being there that, over time, opened my eyes and my heart to the knowledge that she was still here – full of invention and joy and love.

How lucky am to have made this journey with her.

Thanks Mom.

Note from Bob: All of the art in the video was created by people living with dementia. It is both fascinating and uplifting to me. The video is moving and well worth taking the time to watch.

Thanks to Marilyn's kindness and relentless effort -- "The Artist Within" was born.

Marilyn Raichle writes at The Art of Alzheimer’s — How Mother Forgot Nearly Everything and Began to Paint. She is the curator of The Artist Within, an art exhibition featuring 50 artworks by 42 individuals, ages 60-101, living with dementia. In 2017, she is launching a new venture We’re Still Here – Building a Narrative of Hope – a city-wide program advancing knowledge, engagement and creative thinking toward a dementia friendly community.

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