Miller and colleagues described an interesting series of 12 patients with dementia who "acquired, or
sustained, new musical or visual abilities despite progression of their dementia." One patient was a 68-year-old man who began to compose classical music
in the face of progressive dementia. "His mind was 'taken over' during composition," notes the study. This led to the theory that, in the healthy brain,
one part of the brain "suppresses" or is dominant over another part of the brain. In this case, the gentleman had musical abilities that were suppressed by
another part of his brain. When the dominant part of the brain deteriorated, the "musical part" was released to express itself. The same theory may hold
true for artists like Lester Potts, who started to paint after losing his verbal abilities. Alternative channels of communication have opened. Dementia patients' artwork reveals the ability to communicate in people who were previously thought to
lack even self-awareness.
The majority of the time we assume that we have lost our loved ones to another world, where we cannot reach them. Like I stressed
in my previous piece, our
challenge is to take the time and make the effort to meet them in "their now," which is still rich with emotion. This requires that we view them through a
new prism, one that embraces what emerges from their alternative channels.
For the majority of our lives we define ourselves by our abilities: how well we perform in school, catch a football, teach algebra or raise our children.
Unfortunately, as we age or after we develop a chronic illness, we focus more on what we cannot do- our disabilities. We are suddenly the person in the
wheelchair or the one who cannot remember where they parked their car. As time goes on, we feel marginalized and isolated from social interactions and
stimulation. We become the person in the corner of the room.
But, even those with significant dementia and cognitive disabilities have a reservoir of abilities. We find ourselves mistakenly believing that our
relative who suffers from Alzheimer's is no longer capable of experiencing joy or communicating their emotions, so we define them by their disease rather
than by who they are in their now.
Expressive arts therapies incorporate a wide range of opportunities for people to communicate, including music, art, drama, poetry, and storytelling. The expressive arts offer a new channel of communication and increase
people's ability to tell their story.
Isak Dinesen, the Danish author who wrote Out of Africa, tells us that, "To be a person, is to have a
story to tell," and telling that story helps to heal us.
The story of art and dementia is told in the documentary I Remember Better When I Paint , narrated by
Olivia de Havilland. It shows how the creative arts can change the quality of life for people with Alzheimer's disease. The co-director of the film, Berna
Huebner, visited her mother in a nursing home in Chicago and asked her, "Wouldn't you like to paint again?" Her mother, a once highly successful painter
responded, "Yes, I remember better when I paint."