The Artist beneath the Alzheimer’s

The benefits of art during dementia are many. Whether the person with dementia was an artist or not makes no difference. It is a way for them to express themselves and it can diminish depression and anxiety and increase their wanting to interact socially.

True Story:

He was a famous artist amongst the elite; you could tell by his art’s price tags. He was known as an arrogant and self-absorbed man but now he had late Alzheimer’s and spent most of the day wandering the halls of the nursing home. Even then he had a royal aloofness that set him apart.

A reporter was doing an article on my picture communication program for persons in non-verbal dementia. The artist’s wife was her friend and she introduced us thinking she’d want to learn about the technique. She had often expressed how she’d give anything to be able to communicate with him again. She was a tiny woman, wearing lots of makeup and dressed in an expensive artsy way. She did seem genuinely excited and we set a date to meet at the facility. I requested she bring old photographs to get an idea as to his awareness level. He’d been non-verbal for a while and used family photos to base my assessment on his reactions to them.

I arrived early and found him sitting alone at a corner table in the activity room. He was smearing red paint from a large brush, looked up a second when I used his name then continued painting running off the paper onto the table. I complimented his art but he refused to respond avoiding eye contact.

His wife arrived and kissed him on the cheek but he continued painting uninterested in our presence. We sat next to him and began looking at the photos together while she explained to me each one. Occasionally he would glance up for a second and quickly look away. However, he abruptly grabbed the photo of himself and Kurt Vonnegut, a famous writer, out of my hand. He studied it intensely then shoved it back at me. He was uninterested with most but occasionally one would get his attention. Even though he was looking away I could tell he was listening.

I taught her how to use the collage technique with him and he actually began responding. However, she decided to discontinue after a few sessions never explaining why.

Several months later, I had a group session at a different nursing home and was surprised to find he had been transferred there. He still avoided eye contact but readily accepted my invitation to join my collage group as though he remembered me and responded to the process as though it were familiar. He was unable to use a scissors or glue so after he chose a picture from the magazine, I’d cut it out and hand it to him, he’d position it then I’d paste it. Then we’d would it hold up and I’d talk about his images. His attention span was very short so his collages were usually just a few pictures. The picture selections were colorful and unusual and reflected his prior art style.

When he was finished, he did something I will never forget. He took his collage and wandered away with it dangling at his side. He went to every resident sitting in the living room and flashed his art in front of their face for a second before moving on to the next person and repeating the motion. It was obvious he wanted them to appreciate what he had created. His shoulders were back and he smiled with a proud expression on his face.

The artist had emerged and the sitting room became his gallery filled with admiring patrons. This self-realized talent who had exhibited his art worldwide and hobnobbed with the rich and famous was back.

Unfortunately, most of the high society patrons of his art would have seen this simple collage as a sad testimony to his diminished ability. They might never have understood that those pictures expressed his life, his art and his soul and in spite of his disabilities, collage making enabled him to create again.

The artist beneath the Alzheimer’s knew in his heart that he could still create.

and this simple piece of art confirmed his existence for him.


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