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Erica K

Erica K
New Jersey, USA
September 26
I have a new blog: Grew up in Jackson Heights, New York, but now live in Jersey. Married and the proud owner (servant?) of 4 cats, including a little blind guy named Quincy. Jobs have included: English teacher in U.S. and abroad, cabaret performer and member of a NYC sketch comedy troupe; now a legal secretary and freelance writer. Other jobs: canvasser for NYPIRG/cannery worker in Naknek, Alaska (a fisherman told me it was "the ugliest part of Alaska")/dog kennel cleaner/member of the swine and poultry crew on a California farm. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Samuel Beckett


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FEBRUARY 6, 2012 11:31AM

I Remember Better When I Paint

Rate: 15 Flag

I brought Mom some painting supplies today after reading about the 2009 documentary, I Remember Better When I Paint, about the positive impact of art and other creative therapies on Alzheimer’s patients.   As I mentioned in my last post, Mom used to be very good drawing, and she did some painting and sculpting as well.  We watched part of the documentary on PBS which started at 2:30 p.m.(EST).  Mom was fascinated to learn that Rita Hayworth had Alzheimer’s (AD) and returned to painting when she contracted the disease.  Mom doesn’t think she has Alzheimer’s, but she said about it, “It’s a devil of a thing.”


Yes, it is.


A professional artist and graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1930s, Hilda Gorenstein (also known as “Hilgos”), was diagnosed with AD and went into a nursing home at the age of 90.  She was almost catatonic upon arriving at the home, but her daughter, Berna Huebner, physicians and students from the Art Institute of Chicago encouraged her to resume her painting.  She produced about 200 paintings during her time at the home and displayed them at a gallery exhibit.  Huebner said that getting back to art improved her life one hundredfold.  After being asked by her daughter if she wanted to do some painting, Hilgos said, “I remember better when I paint.”  Hilgos was the inspiration behind the documentary, and Huebner wrote a book based on Hilgos saying how people with dementia and AD can reconnect to themselves and their pasts with the help of art students who work with them in creating art.


Mom is a Milwaukee native who attended the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago for two years.  While we were watching the program, she said, “I’ve been to the Art Institute in Chicago.  It’s quite good.”  I never knew she had been there.


I laid out an art pad, a palette of colors and paintbrushes on Mom’s portable table, and she dove right in.  She started with green, then went to blue, brown, pink and red.  She took her time.  She took up to 15-minute breaks in between brush strokes, remembering to dip the brush in the cup of water and dab it off gently on a paper towel before resuming her work. 


She said, “Who is that composer?”


“Mahler?” I said.


“No, composer,” she said.


“Van Gogh, Manet, Renoir?”


“Renoir,” she said.  “Why can't I remember that?”


“Remember your print of the little girl?”


“Marie Beraud,” she said.


I looked it up on my Iphone.  The girl’s name was Marguerite-Thérèse Berard but close enough.


“He painted her after her German lesson to cheer her up.  She was crying,” Mom said.


She was right.   I showed her a picture of the painting on my Iphone.


Marguerite-Therese Berard  

Marguerite-Therese (Margot) Berard by Renoir 


“What a beautiful girl,” she said.


“Yes, she was.”


“Can we look for Lidia?” she said.


We usually watch the cooking show Lidia's Italy on Sundays at 2:30.  It was 3:00 p.m., so no Lidia.  I channel-surfed and found Sex and the City, one of Mom's favorite shows, and we watched reruns of that for a couple hours.  She painted and we talked intermittently.


“Would you like to go to a museum one of these days?  Maybe the Met,” I said.


“Yes, I would like that.”


As it was getting close to the 5:00 o’clock dinner hour, I asked Mom if she wanted to continue painting, and she said she had had enough.   I told her I liked her painting, but she said, “It’s not any good.  I was just messing around.”


Mom's painting, February 5, 2012  


Her favorite aide Miriam came to her room, and I showed her the picture.  Miriam told me that they have arts and crafts almost every day, but Mom usually doesn’t want to go.   I told her that she likes me to take her places.  I pinned the painting on her wall with pushpins next to her animal calendar. 


“It’s just a beginning,” she said.


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Well you know I just love things like this. Warms my heart and the depth is so revealing. You and your mom are troopers. Doing enjoyable things and talking about the world no matter what else is happening.
I had one lady I helped who painted with a palette knife. One stroke about every five minutes. But those strokes will live in my memory always. She had been an artist model. What a character.
We do art at the Alzheimer Center and it is best when it is kept very simple. It isn't really the art that does the magic, it is the atmosphere of everything being ok when we are all engaged in some beautiful activity listening to the old songs and having "it" be okay.
This is a wonderful painting. Mom used a bright palette, and her brush strokes are lively. Most of all-this made her happy. I hope mom continues to paint. Doing art is calming-and even in my darkest moments I find solace in my art. You gave her a precious gift; and I hope she continues painting and perhaps going to the arts and crafts program.
I know you do, zanelle. I wish I didn't have to work, then I'd go to the arts and crafts programs with her at the nursing home, but they are always held during the day. You are doing great work. Keep it up!!

Nancy, thank you. I hope I can convince her to go to arts & crafts without me, but at least we can do a weekly art session. I have colored pencils for her too. She said she might want to sculpt!
This is very deep on so many levels. Thanks!
I was hoping Zanelle would read this..:) It takes love and patience to do something like this. Your mother probably cannot put it into words but I can.
She loves you and this made me cry.
How refreshing to read something upbeat and hopeful about the dreaded AD. Thanks
Mark, thank you for reading. I was so happy to see Mom get back to her art.
Linda, hug to you. Thanks.

beauty, yes, it made me happy to write something upbeat about AD and believe in it.
I don't think I really knew about your mom until this post. It both made me so happy and a bit sad. I'm just so glad you both can be together and that she painted. Maybe the little bit she did will encourage her to paint when you are not there. The love between you too just shines. Thank you.
art is therapy. i think that's how it began--a relief from the toil of living. even if it doesn't impact the "trauma" or physical problem, it helps relieve the stress and hopelessness that accompanies illness. there are lot of theories about how it stimulates the "right" brain, where our higher functions are located--you kn0w--the ones that makes us humans gather than goats.
Thank you for reading, Mango. I appreciate your kindness.

Ben, yes, right you are. It takes us several notches above the fray.
I think you're onto something here, Erica. Encouraging news.
Me too, Chicken Maaan. If only I could paint, that would be a true miracle!
I don't know much about Alzeheimer's, but there's no doubt art can be all kinds of therapeutic for all kinds of ills. Your mom's painting is very cool.
Strikes home for me. Beautiful. Will share w my wife, a textile artist. r.
Thanks, nanatehay. She said it wasn't any good, but I thought it was pretty cool too.

Thanks, Jonathan.
What a wonderful post. I'm also seeing Alzheimer's up close and it isn't pretty. I love the colors she used~
What a hopeful message, thanks, Erica!
Art therapy is awesome... and I like the beginning of your mom's painting. Love Renoir.
I'm so glad you gave your mom those sounds like she really enjoyed it. Feeling a flash of joy or bliss surely should help her in some ways. I am praying for a breakthrough.
There is so much to be discovered yet, especially as the benefits painting can effect cognition in general and the connection between the hemispheres specifically. What an endearing and educational piece. Excellent post, Erica. R
Mothers rule and so do you. I feel like I actually know here from this. Cheers!

Scanner, it's a b&$@h of a disease.

Diana, thanks.

Brazen, me too.

Margie, the act of painting really seemed to soothe her. Looking forward to our next "session."

Thoth, so little is known about the brain's functioning, still fairly unchartered territory.

Algis, thank you for the heart and the sentiment.
Your post brought tears to my eyes. I'm so happy your mother painted with you. I was thinking of you this weekend, and hoping it went well. The colors she blended are so pretty. I'm all choked up. I'm so happy you found something to sooth her you can share with her. I was driving back from my mom's yesterday, and I didn't get to watch the program, but I'd really like to. Thank you for letting us know. You warmed my heart.