Alzheimer's art


by Jay Crandall

Posted on October 21, 2011 at 2:45 PM

PHOENIX -- They are often at a loss for words or are unable to place names with faces, but a unique program here in the Valley is making sure some Alzheimer's patients don't lose their   sense of self.

Jean Switzer says her mother, Grace, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about a year ago, and it is taking it in stride.

“My mother's favorite line is Alzheimer's doesn't hurt," Switzer said. For Grace, this insidious disease, which can steal not just facts and figures but sense of self, hurts even less thanks to some good music, good friends and just the right shade of brown for the house she is drawing.

Grace is taking part in an arts program through Banner Health's Alzheimer’s Institute. Dr. Pierre Tariot says it is helping battle the disease on an important front.

“I don't think it slows the illness down, but it helps preserve identity," he said.

Tariot says art and music are just part of the experience. The social interaction involved also helps preserve important pathways in the brain.

“Maybe another way to think about it is that there is this thing called emotional memory.  That is much better preserved than memory for facts," he explained. "That is the whole idea. Dad is still home. He may be forgetting some details but in many respects he is very much himself. “

Nowhere is that more evident than in the art these patients create, whether it's Vanessa's  studied use of  scale and color or the intense rainbows and fantastic blue leaves of another artist.

For Grace, it's houses she draws where Switzer still sees her mother's spirit.

"That represents the family and the home, and ... my parents have been in the same home since 1952, so it is like a part of herself," she said.

Even though Grace will say she has no  talent for drawing, music therapist Tryn Rose Clark says that creativity is in each patient, it just needs a jump start.

“Getting a chance to sing and tell stories about their lives engages and ignites their creative fire," she explained. "And then they start to paint. “

Patients are also making memories. Some last for only for moments; others carry over as patients look forward to coming back each week to a class where a bit of themselves will be shared and saved in the art they create.

Tariot says it gives them not only that sense of identity, but purpose.

"Just because you have this diseases doesn't mean you don't have a lot of strengths," he said.

Switzer says it has turned a terrifying diagnosis, into something just a little less scary.

“It has changed my whole idea of what Alzheimer's is and what it can be," she said.

For more information you can contact the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute at 602-839-6900
1-888-STOP-ALZ (1-888-786-7259).