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  • Writer's pictureKatya De Luisa

Artist Beneath Alzheimer's

He was a famous artist amongst the Longboat Key elite. You could tell by the price tags attached to his art. I was told he had always been an arrogant self-absorbed personality. That was easy to believe because even in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, he demonstrated an aloofness that set him apart from the other residents, as though he was misplaced royalty.

The week before meeting him, a reporter was interviewing me about my picture communication therapy for persons in non-verbal Alzheimer’s. She told me about the artist and said his wife would certainly like to meet me. She had often commented how she would give anything to communicate with him again. A meeting was arranged.

The artist’s wife was small in stature, wearing a large hat and dressed in a casual artsy way. After explaining the process, she seemed genuinely interested and we set a date to meet at the facility. I requested that she bring old photographs so I could get an idea as to her husband’s awareness level. He was predominately non-verbal and I wanted to assess his abilities by his reactions to the photos.

I arrived early and found him sitting alone at a corner table apart from a group art activity. He was coloring a picture with crayons. He responded to his name looking up for just a second, then continued coloring, occasionally running off the paper onto the table. I was told he didn’t like eye contact. I commented on what he was doing but he didn’t respond and seemed to ignore my presence.

His wife arrived and kissed him on the cheek. He continued coloring uninterested in her presence as well. She and I began looking at the photos together while she explained each one. He continued coloring.

However, when she showed me a photo with her husband and Kurt Vonnegut, a famous writer, he abruptly grabbed the photo from my hand, studied it intensely and shoved it back. We continued looking through the photos, he’d respond occasionally, then returned to coloring. It was obvious he was listening and understood much of what we were saying, even though it didn’t appear that way.

I was hired to conduct collage communication sessions with them however, she discontinued them shortly afterwards. She said the interaction with him was too emotionally painful. She couldn’t deal with his condition.

Several months later, I conducted a group session at a different nursing home and was surprised to find he had been transferred there. He still refused eye contact but readily accepted my invitation to join the group at the table. He responded to the collage process as though it were familiar to him. He was unable to use a scissors or glue but he could choose pictures from the magazine while I held it. I would cut out his selected image and hand it to him. He’d slowly decide on the positioning, and I’d glue it in place for him. His attention span was very short but he was able to complete a collage with about five pictures. The picture selections were colorful and unusual and the positioning reflected prior art experience.

When he was finished, he did something I will never forget. He took his collage and wandered away with it dangling from his hand. He went to each resident in the sitting room and flashed it in front of their face for a second before moving on to the next person where he would repeat the motion. It was obvious he wanted them to appreciate what he had created. His shoulders were back and he smiled with a proud expression on his face.

Apparently, the artist had emerged and the sitting room had become his gallery filled with patrons. This self-realized talent who had exhibited his art worldwide and hobnobbed with the rich and famous had returned and he was happy.

Unfortunately, his wife and most of the high society patrons of his art would have perceived his actions as sad and judged that simple collage as testimony to his diminished ability. They might never have understood and that in spite of his cognitive disabilities, that collage enabled him to express himself; to once again be himself.

The artist beneath the Alzheimer’s was able to emerge.

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