Changing the Way We Think about Alzheimer's—One Painting at a Time

We hear a lot about Alzheimer's and dementia these days. Almost always, the stories are depressing—sometimes terrifying. Visions of a demented fog without dignity or meaning. Those with the disease spoken of in the past tense—empty shells where someone used to be.

Not surprisingly, most of us tend to turn away as fast as we can. I was one of them.

Then Mom began to paint.

Her art invited me in … past the fear. One look at her beautiful paintings and you can immediately see a mind at work—lively, inventive and full of life.

Slowly I began to discover that Mom and thousands like her are still here—living lives of dignity, creativity and joy.

Put simply: Alzheimer's is scary—art isn't.

My mother Jean discovered her inner artist late in life.
At age 89, Mom had never painted a day in her life, yet she stunned us all with her amazing art. Now 95 and with a short-term memory of about three seconds, she has no conscious memory of painting and actively resists the idea as ridiculous. When praised for her work, she tends to laugh, saying, "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—sometimes remarkable.

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 … or in one case, strawberries.

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. Zucchinis became dragons and flowers emerged as clowns or a cat materializing inside a vase. In one stunning example, she completely captured the essence of a gooseneck squash with a gorgeous speckled goose with big orange feet.

Her interpretations were so interesting, I began to take photos of the subjects she was painting. It's fascinating to see them through Mom's eyes. To me, this looks like someone hurtling into the arms of two giant lobsters.

Now Mom paints largely from her mind's eye. More often than not, the paintings are perfectly symmetrical and tend to have a face. We never know what to expect but they provide a window into thoughts and emotions she is unable to express in any other way.

Newfound pleasures
Over the years, my visits have changed from merely dutiful to immensely rewarding. Mom has taught me so many things—the peace of real time, patience, the value of a smile and a hug—things I wish I had known when my father was going through his far more difficult, far less happy life with Alzheimer's. I've found joy in being a part of Mom's new family in assisted living—with my six "new Moms," all interesting lovely women in various stages of Alzheimer's and dementia and all living with dignity, creativity, curiosity and joy.

Above all, I've lost my fear of the disease itself and am dedicating myself to the support of the programs that engage and enrich their and our lives.

When I tell Mom that people like her paintings, her reaction is one of astonishment—first at the idea that she paints and second at the idea that anyone would like them. When I tell her that people collect her art, her reaction is immediate. "They're crazy!" But truly, if she only knew how much people enjoy her art, I think she would be enormously—though secretly—pleased.

Mom on her 95th Birthday

The Art of Alzheimer's
To read more about Mom, visit The Art of Alzheimer's: How Mother Forgot Nearly Everything and Began to Paint at www.theartofalzheimers.net.

To watch a short film by a film by Charlie Watts and William Thompson, set to the music of Bruce Cockburn, visit www.theartofalzheimers.net/the-film or click on the image at the top of this page.

Contributor Marilyn Raichle is the founder of The Art of Alzheimer's. Media cover has included a KING 5 Emmy-winning story, Those Suffering from Alzheimer's are Still Here, and a KUOW story, 94-Year-Old Seattle Alzheimer's Patient Discovers New Artistic Talent. For more information, "Like" The Art of Alzheimer's on Facebook or e-mail Marilyn at raichlm@gmail.com.

The floral arrangement at right was the model for the painting at left.