When words fail: Artistic expressions allow Alzheimer's patients to open up

Monday, October 23, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Every day Ed Krautmann's 83-year-old mind slip-slides down a slope of dementia.

When his memory fails him, as it often does, there's his paintbrush.

One recent morning, with his tweed riding cap atop his head, Krautmann sat painting at a table with seven other residents of Cypress Court at Overland Park. It's a senior living center whose residents, like Krautmann, live with Alzheimer's and other memory-snatching diseases.

Using watercolors, they copied images from calendar pages. Krautmann likes to make pictures of animals, and he's particular about his work. He centers the images on the watercolor paper with a compass. Then, with surgeon-like precision, he moves pencil or brush across the paper.

Ask him why he prefers animals. "This is my life," he'll say.

Krautmann was once a veterinarian and taxidermist in a small Missouri town.

When words fail him, there's Memories in the Making, a nationwide program that is exploring whether dementia patients can reveal themselves through art.

Hundreds of Kansas City residents have participated since the Alzheimer's Association-Heart of America chapter brought the program here four years ago. Auctioning some of the artwork has become an annual fund-raiser for the group.

Now the work will receive citywide exposure as the Alzheimer's association, the Kansas City Business Committee for the Arts and private businesses launch a traveling exhibit.

"Sometimes the art is about the person, what they did in an earlier life, and sometimes it's about where they are now, like a figure looking out into a storm. There's some sort of metaphor there," said Kansas City artist Matt Dehaemers, who oversees the local program.

"A lot of the programs have a spectrum of people in early to late stages. For someone who's a little further along, if we're able to get them to put brush on paper and make marks with them, that's a huge deal."

Powerful images

Once, a patient painted a house with bright yellow and orange rays radiating from the windows.

"The title was Leave the Light on for Me, which I thought was pretty powerful," Dehaemers said. "You don't know exactly what she meant by that, but I assume it was Hey, I'm still here."

A California artist whose mother had Alzheimer's started the art therapy program 20 years ago, not as a lesson but as a tool. Volunteer artists lead small groups through the weekly, hourlong sessions, so popular that there's a waiting list of places around Kansas City that want one.

Some of the patients have had prior art experience, others have not. It doesn't matter. Dehaemers is in awe of them daring to take on something as challenging as art.

"It's one way for them to communicate when oftentimes they don't have the ability to talk anymore," Dehaemers said. "These people spend their days in a kind of darkness and being unsure of themselves and having low self-esteem.

"It frees their minds in a way. We, as adults, still kind of second-guess ourselves, and a lot of times they are free and open to doing this, and that's kind of a beautiful thing to see. Sometimes they take it in a direction that you don't expect. I like to see that kind of visual journey."

Take, for example, a painting by Norman Karr, 67, another Cypress Court resident. He called it "Dog Eat Dog World."

He painted rows of colorful canines, lined up in orderly fashion. Some were biting each other on the behind.

"What you find in art therapy with Alzheimer's patients is that a fair percentage of them will surprise you and re-create something meaningful, even when they seem like they're incapable of it," said Stephen Post, professor of bioethics and religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a noted Alzheimer's expert.

"It suggests that there's still some remnant of self-identity there, even though they cannot communicate by speech or proceed from point A to point B over time. They are kind of living in the pure present, and they seem like they are, quote unquote, gone, there's nothing there anymore.

"But I think that you have to be careful about that, because at some deep level these recognitions of meaning through a symbol or the re-creation of a symbol through art can be important."

Remembering identity

Post told of a Cleveland Alzheimer's patient who had worked in the city's steel factories.

"Even in the most advanced stages of the disease he clung to a cowboy hat," Post said. "As it turned out, he dressed country and western in the factory life that he led, and he more or less understood on some level who he was, that his life's story was kind of wrapped up in that hat, which became a symbol of his life."

Memories in the Making doesn't just promote mind-brush connections. It has been known to strengthen family ties often frazzled by Alzheimer's. Family members sometimes recognize images in the artwork, like the family dog or the family car, that the artist has conjured.

Debra Brook, executive director of the local Alzheimer's association, told of one elderly Alzheimer's patient who, though still communicative, did not recognize his daughter, one of the more distressing fallouts of the disease.

When the man joined the Memories in the Making program, he worked for weeks drawing a series of horizontal and diagonal lines on paper.

When asked what he was drawing, he said, "Directions to my daughter's house."

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