Guest essay by Tiffany Paige, Director of Artisan Mind
Every one of us has a collection of stories that define our lives and make up who we are.
For someone living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, those stories gradually slip away and with them goes their connection to who they are. That is scary. But there is a significant piece of hope that can be found here.
Science shows that memories often are stored as images. This means that by engaging in art and having reflective conversations around paintings and photographs, we actually have the opportunity to help restore a person’s memories.
CHUCK’S STORY IS UNIQUELY MINDFUL
Chuck has Alzheimer’s disease. When he came into The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento for the “Meet Me at the Museum” program he was disoriented, withdrawn and anxious. He walked very slowly and hunched over his walker.
As we went through the California gallery, which is full of gorgeous California landscapes, Chuck looked up for a moment, pointed at the mountains and said, “I know those mountains.” Then he put his head back down and shuffled on to the next painting.
By asking him how he knew the mountain and encouraging him to tell us what he saw in the paintings, he eventually made the connection and then proclaimed, “Those mountains are New York!” Delighted, we ignored the fact that the mountains are actually Yosemite and asked Chuck to tell us more.
He gradually connected to the memory of riding his bike as a boy in the mountains of New York where he grew up, and most importantly the emotional memory of feeling happy. This beautiful breakthrough is what I call a “golden nugget of information.” With the next painting of mountains, he told us the story again. And again. And then again. It was more beautiful each time and Chuck changed each time he told the story. He stood up straighter, his eyes got wider, he smiled and his anxiety disappeared.
He literally left the museum a different man — like a man not in the clutches of Alzheimer’s. He remembered who he was and, with that, his social anxiety melted away and his spirit came back to life. The art experience helped for this brief time to subdue the negative side-effects of his dementia.
“I APPRECIATE YOU.”
For those of us who still know who we are, literally, there is the opportunity to offer love and appreciation and respect to those on the other side. With every repeated story, we get to say again, “You matter and I am here for you and I am listening.” This dignifies the storyteller and nonverbally reinforces, “I appreciate you.”
Question: How often do you think a person living with Alzheimer’s gets to feel dignified and appreciated?
Answer: As often as we choose to share ourselves, listen and love them.
Art is a catalyst for this kind of connection. It creates a path back to the house of lost memories even when the disease has crumbled the front walkway. When the connection happens, you will know something is at work that is much bigger than you or the illness. It is a beautiful thing and an honor to be a part of this kind of awakening. Be forewarned, it can become addicting.
The nonprofit Artisan Mind, in conjunction with ARTZ Sacramento and Meet Me at the Museum, offer free, monthly museum tours, specially developed for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. To learn more, visit www.ArtisanMind.org.