Weekend Diversion: Combatting Alzheimer's with Art

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." -Thomas Merton

Whatever your creative outlets are -- music, painting, photography, drawing, or even writing, to name a few -- I hope you get to enjoy them frequently. There's nothing like engaging your imagination and creativity, although I have to admit that I speak of this only from my own anecdotal experience, not from any scientific knowledge that I have. That's part of why each weekend I give you a song to listen to; today I give you Josh Harty's unique Roots/Americana composition,

Last Known Address.

But this weekend, I'd like to share with you something I just learned about recently: the power of embracing the creative arts to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's.

Image credit: The Hilgos Foundation / I Remember Better When I Paint.

Like many of you, I have older relatives that I've watched -- some slowly, some quickly -- lose their short-term and eventually their long-term memories due to Alzheimer's and dementia. While it's true that Alzheimer's is almost never hereditary (unless you have a certain gene mutation for early-onset Alzheimer's), it's something that will affect one-in-eight older Americans, and is actually the #6 cause of death in the United States.

But for me -- as a young, healthy person -- the fear of losing my mind, of losing the thoughts that make up my own self-identity, that's the most horrifying part. And it turns out that not only can the creative arts help those afflicted Alzheimer's remember better, there's a wonderful documentary film out there about it.


Image credit: The Hilgos Foundation / I Remember Better When I Paint.

Hilda Gorenstein, an accomplished painter who painted under the name Hilgos, began suffering from Alzheimer's later in life, back in the early 1990s. Her daughter, visiting her in a nursing home, asked her mother if she wouldn't like to paint again. The simple response, "I remember better when I paint," gave rise to what's eventually become a documentary film about the intersection of science, medicine, and the arts in combatting Alzheimer's. From the official synopsis, the film

is the first international documentary about the positive impact of art and other creative therapies on people with Alzheimer’s and how these approaches can change the way society looks at the disease.

I'm a big fan of any therapy that can improve and enhance people's quality-of-life, and I'm an even bigger fan when science and medicine back that up.

Image credit: The Hilgos Foundation / I Remember Better When I Paint.

So far, the film has been shown on public television stations in ten different states across the country, as well as in Canada and on national stations in Europe and Asia, as far as I know. But, unfortunately, it hasn't made it to Oregon, the state where "Hilgos" herself is from! I think the work the Hilgos Foundation is doing to help make this film and the information and stories therein available, for free, to the general public is wonderful, and I've nominated I Remember Better When I Paint for a Shorty Award.

You can watch the official trailer below.

Time will eventually claim all of us, and return us to the Universe we came from. But I'm so happy to have learned about this type of positive therapy for people afflicted with this horrible disease, and for this film which highlights the good we can do for those who are still here. Hope you have a great and uplifting time this weekend, and I'll see you all back here again next week to share in the wonders and joys of the Universe!

More like this

Ethan, you may find this article interesting as well. It's fairly old, from 2001, but it describes language ability (vocabulary, fluidity, etc) as predictors for developing Alzheimer's symptoms later in life.

Most importantly, it describes some nuns with high language ability from their intake essay who never developed signs or symptoms of Alzheimer's, but had anatomic evidence of the disease at autopsy.

I think the operative concept is "use your brain". Painting, writing, solving puzzles, reading, playing (imagining) are probably all helpful, but difficult to measure in a study.

I'm in pre-op clinic right now. We assess patients about to have surgery, and more than a couple of times this week, we've come up on a VERY old patient having a very large and risky surgery. Our initial reaction on chart review ("what are they thinking, she has critical aortic stenosis!") is that the surgery is inappropriate. Meeting the patient changes that once you realize how much pep (there's fancier words, but not better) they still have. In both of the cases I ran into this month, the patients are lifelong readers or puzzle solvers.

Makes me wonder if I should put facebook away, but actually, friends' posts (and blogs) are a great source of interesting reads in all manner of subjects (sorry, not all are astrophysics). I guess I'll call it even.

Getting demetia or alzheimers is a nightmare.
What can be done to prevent or alleviate (i.e. to stay healthy) is a pretty short list of do's and don'ts.
Of course that ounce of prevention is in our own hands.

That being said what do we do as our loved ones minds and behavior slips dangerously?

Sadly, if you think it was hard discussing, reasoning, arguing, disagreeing with a parent when they were 40, 50 or 60; it is worse when they are 80+. Long before things have gotten to the point of children seeking (and having a possibility of getting) guardianship of a demented parent; things have gotten pretty bad.

My father has been in 4 or 5 minor accidents, he has fallen 4 or 5 times, he can't remember a single thing (even with prompting) about a week that he spent with one grandson (All this in the last year). etc..

But he can argue vigorously and convincingly for his right to decide everything about his life.

There are no easy choice; nor social norms even on such a simple thing as retaining a drivers license or not; living alone in a home with stairs.

Some people would accuse my one brother, who called my father's auto insurance company recently, of not minding his own business.

The right to drive is such a complicated and emotional issue for older people. As is the right to live in your own home. Manage your own finances. etc.

My lawyer brother thinks that getting guardianship is not possible yet. Nevertheless, he has arranged a family meeting (of us five children) with a lawyer specializing in elderly issues including guardianship. It is an exploratory meeting.

I'm afraid I have no creative outlets. I tend to just enjoy other's creative outlets.

By Dark Jaguar (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

Thank you so much for honoring the Hilgos Foundation in this way! Their "I Remember Better When I Paint" documentary is such a powerful force to improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. My neurologist husband and I discovered the benefits of art for people with Alzheimer's disease when his father, Lester Potts, a hard-working Alabama lumberman, was stricken. In mid-stage Alzheimer's, Lester began attending a Caring Days, a local dementia daycare center, where he was exposed to art therapy. Although he had NEVER painted before, he became a watercolor artist whose artwork has been displayed all over the world since his death in 2007. "Hilgos" and Lester are two of countless people with Alzheimer's disease whose quality of life greatly improved through art. I have voted for the Hilgos Foundation and encourage everyone to do likewise!

By Ellen Potts (not verified) on 02 Feb 2013 #permalink

This is a very good recreational activity. I hope this helps them.

By Krista Salvatore (not verified) on 03 Feb 2013 #permalink

The wonders of the human brain are absolutely astonishing. The fact that people living with Alzheimer's disease are able to combat their lost memories with paintings and music and any kind of creative art shows how mind blowing our brains have the capability of being.

I have always been a strong advocate for the arts, believing that music and sculpting and words and drama can heavily influence our everyday lives. I believe for some people, hearing a certain song will influence their moods, while for others, paintings and sculptures will have a larger impact. For some of us, myself included, words can change our lives. Stepping into a world developed by someone else and written down on a piece can change how we look at the world. The arts are powerful, and most definitely need further scientific research.

By Michael D Phillips (not verified) on 08 Feb 2013 #permalink

Everyone has heard the saying "If you don't use it, then you lose it!" implying that if one does not stay active, both physically and mentally, then they will lose their strength and/or cognition. The same principle applies here: those with Alzheimer's Disease, who have lost the ability to recall long-term memories and have impaired daily functioning due to that loss, should keep their mind active since the disease worsens over time.

Creativity in particular is a great way to keep one's mind active. To create something, whether painting, drawing, playing an instrument, etc, one's mind must be continually working and stimulated to produce an outcome (the piece of artwork/ song/ etc). This is especially helpful with the elderly and those with Alzheimer's Disease. This past summer, I volunteered at a nursing home in the Rehab unit with an Occupational Therapist. We treated many patients that had this disease. One particular patient loved to draw, so during therapy one day, she drew a portrait of each of us, as well as the other therapists. After a while, we began to notice that she was doing a lot better cognitively than the other patients with similar problems as she. We also noticed that on days where she had crayons and paper in her hands, she would do much better than she would on days where she did not. Even though art did not "cure her" from the disease, it certainly supplemented the therapy that was done with her.

By Kathleen Lago (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

Alzheimer's is something that has always interested me. When I was young my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I have watched his short term memory deteriorate very rapidly. I have plans to go to medical school when I finish my undergrad and I feel as this is one of the main reasons why I want to do that. Reading this article has really given me some ideas to maybe try and improve my grandfathers quality of life. I have read several articles in the past that link art and music with the improved brain function of Alzheimer's patients. Kathleen's story about the patient in the nursing home who improved after she did the painting only supports what I have read. I really feel as though art can improve the quality of life of someone who has this horrible disease and I am anxious to do more research on this subject. I think my research would be something I would be interested in presenting to my prospective medical schools in the upcoming future. Hopefully throughout this research I will come across numerous methods on how to improve the quality of life for patients who suffer from this horrible disease.

By TJ STEPANSKI (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

Ethan, this is a very interesting research option for Alzheimer's and dementia. Their is not much information that science can explain how or why the human brain functions in different ways throughout life. This increases the fear of ourselves or our loved ones developing the disease. I was not aware Alzheimer's affected 1 in 8 people! I find it very true when the trailer mentions the creative arts are a way to bypass the limitations of this terrible disease. The brain is like a muscle that needs to be worked out just like the rest of our body, which can easily be done through painting, sculpting or playing an instrument. I hope more research is conducted in the coming years. My grandmother, who is 81, is a participant in a Alzheimer's study and has proved her brain function and memory to be very strong. She was also a docent at the Carneige Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for over 10 years. I wonder if her study of art has contributed to her very impressive brain function- I hope it runs in the family!

Personally, my passion is music. I have played the saxophone since a young age and I can certainly see what benefits it provides in my everyday life. I have developed many relationships through music, I feel better emotionally when playing or listening to music, and I feel that it helps my overall functioning.
Sadly, Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative disease that has a gradual onset. Symptoms usually include memory difficulties, deficits in language, decision-making, appropriate behavior, and impulse control. Although the outcome of the disease is detrimental to one's health, I believe that having a creative outlet can at least slow down the process and help the individual enjoy what is left of their life.
Many benefits have been shown in using creative outlets with older adults. According to an article by Kenneth Phillips of the University of Tennessee, creativity can improve problem-solving ability, self-esteem, coping skills, anxiety, life satisfaction, depressive symptoms, and improve communication between neurons in the brain. Another interesting fact I found is that older adults who had paintings in their rooms used less pain medication than those who did not have any artistic paintings in their room.
I think that combating Alzheimer's disease with art or other creative outlets is a great idea. Even though Alzheimer's is not able to be cured completely by such things, there are multiple benefits that arise from integrating creativity in the people's lives who suffer from this disease. In the end, creativity brings joy to life and that is all that matters.


By Kayleigh Swanson (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink