My mother died five years ago, having suffered from Alzheimer's for about 10 years. It is usually not a clear moment when the illness strikes. As with many people, she was a healthy old woman, somewhat forgetful, a little absent minded, losing words here and there and forgetting names. It was a shock to me when she was officially diagnosed by the psychiatrist as suffering from dementia of the Alzheimer's type. More shocking for me, maybe, because I was working at the time, as an art therapist with Alzheimer's patients in a geriatric facility.
I thought it would be so simple when I took her to the psychiatrist to undergo a battery of tests. It was my field of work and I had sat with so many people who reacted painfully to the official diagnosis. I felt sure I could handle it. Yet when the moment came, and the doctor announced the results, I wept as though it were the first time that I had heard of such an illness and as though I had not already guessed what her situation was.
It was very sad to witness the gradual deterioration, as parts of her were slowly lost to me and to the world. But I do want to mention something quite surprising. My mother was a woman with much talent, a love of art, and quite creative. However, she never really fulfilled her potential, always unsure of what she did and mostly devaluing her work and giving up without investing any real effort.
However, an astonishing thing happened as her dementia progressed. She became less self conscious, less self critical and much more content with whatever creative work she was involved with. As an art therapist, I spent times with her, encouraging her to draw and paint. I would sit next to her, give her paper and different sorts of crayons and give her ideas of what to draw. I saw that she was easily satisfied with what she drew, even if it was not particularly impressive. "That’s quite lovely," she would say, which she would never have done in the past. "I think I'd like to do another," she would continue. This was a strange contribution of the illness that gave her a certain freedom, as though some internal critical voice was put to sleep and she could be who she was without putting herself down.
When she died, I was left with a large box full of her lovely, free, colorful and expressive pictures. Five years later, they still lie in my office under the computer table where I do my writing. Every so often I sit on the floor and remember this period of grace that she had and I long for those days.
Ruth shares more about her experience as an art therapist working with individuals with dementia
When my mother died of Alzheimer's, I had been working for eight years in a geriatric facility with people suffering from dementia. As an art therapist, I had the privilege of accessing all the remaining positive parts of these people. Many of them would come alive in a most surprising way even though they were often unable to speak, had very little memory, were often passive and depressed or angry.
I would present them with art materials and help with ideas and ways to use the colors and brushes. Often, members of the staff would peep into the room and see the lovely art work hung on the walls, each picture different from the other, expressing their own personal styles. Or they would see an old, usually angry gentleman, bent over a page, concentrating with all his might on copying a simple picture from an art book.
After my mother passed away, I decided to write a book about this experience. This was because I know how many millions of people are seeking ways to help their parents or spouses or sisters or brothers who become more and more isolated by the illness. I know that art therapy does not cure the illness, but for many people, it increases quality of life, provides them with an "alternative" language, the language of art, through which to express emotions trapped inside.
I now lecture at universities and geriatric facilities because I have a mission which is to help the medical profession take a serious look at the value of art therapy as one means of improving the lives of Alzheimer's sufferers. If the medical profession relates with more interest to this field, there is more chance that carers will begin to accept the value of it and demand that it is made available in geriatric facilities. This is why I spent three years writing about art therapy and why I am trying to promote it as a valuable resource.
I am appalled at giving up on people when they have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I think that every resource available should be made known to the carers throughout the world.
Ruth is the author of "When Words Have Lost Their Meaning: Alzheimer's Patients Communicate Through Art."