Art of Alzheimer’s: a lesson in dementia

by Becca Verda, Alzheimer’s Association

“[My mom] had never painted a day in her life yet these paintings were really good, always interesting and sometimes remarkable.  Slowly, I began to understand.  She may have had a short term memory of about ten seconds, but she was still here—loving, creative and joyful.  I began to share the art with others and the reaction was always the same—delight, surprise and gratitude to experience a story about Alzheimer’s with hope and joy—a continual discovery of the value of human life.” Marilyn Raichle, Art of Alzheimer’s Curator.

Jean Raichle orange meanie
Orange Meanie, Jean Raichle

The Art of Alzheimer’s The Artist Within exhibit shares incredible works of art. Most were created with watercolor and capture vibrant colors and stunning perspectives. The art is so moving many visitors may be surprised to learn that all 43 contributing artists are living with dementia.

Day Class H. David Jones - Copy

This surprise drives the exhibit’s goal to change perspectives around memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Often, when we think of memory loss, we think of just that – loss. Loss of memories, loss of self and loss of ability. The Art of Alzheimer’s shows that creativity and expression are possible when individuals with dementia are considered for their assets rather than defining them by the deficits we perceive.

This is more than art. It is a way of thinking about aging and memory loss that stands to make great progress in shaping how we interact with those affected by dementia. And the community response has been significant. When it opened, The Artist Within became the largest exhibit opening at Seattle City Hall with considerable media coverage. The exhibit has been open to the public for two months, but it won’t pack up anytime soon. It will travel to Harborview Medical Center, the Discovery Regional Alzheimer’s Conference on April 15, and the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Bakke Dead Pilings - Copy
Dead Pilings, Bakke

For the exhibit to be shown in a medical and professional education setting is significant. The general public is not the only arena where a reframing around dementia needs to happen.

“For the medical community to be exposed to [the exhibit] is very powerful to help that reframing happen,” says Marigrace Becker of the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center.  She has helped coordinate the exhibit’s move to Harborview and says, “[Hospitals are] an environment where people are used to seeing people with dementia as disease first and not necessarily focusing on the person as a whole.”

Mike Todd - Copy
Mike Todd

The tendency to focus on the disease rather than the person has become a barrier to care and communication between doctors and patients. The Alzheimer’s Association 2015 Facts & Figures report found that only 45% of people with dementia and their caregivers are told of the diagnosis. Doctors shared several reasons for not disclosing diagnosis including lack of treatment options and training to have conversations with patients about dementia.

Dorothy Sale
Dorothy Sale

There is no cure for dementia and in a medical setting that is difficult. However, there is life after diagnosis. “Having this in our cultural environs here [at Harborview] will make people think about how there is much more of a story [beyond disease and diagnosis] within dementia,” says Marigrace. “And that’s powerful.” It’s important for medical professionals to see a new way of living with dementia beyond the lack of medical treatment. Individuals living with dementia have to be seen as more than a dementia patient for life after diagnosis to be creative and inspired. The Art of Alzheimer’s The Artist Within exhibit has shown us that is possible.

Attend the Art of Alzheimer’s opening at Harborview Medical Center March 10 or view the exhibit during a day of dementia education at Discovery 2016.

For information on memory loss programs in your community call 1.800.272.3900.

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