Memory served: Morris mentors Alzheimer’s patients

Mary Jo Peters pulled a brush carefully over blank art paper, tracing with a delicate touch the profile of Kathy Tuckey.

“I like to do portraits,” she comments. Peters calls it a hobby, but in her prime, the former artist was featured in several one-woman shows in the Washington, D.C., area. She painted portraits and landscapes, including the snow scene that now hangs on her apartment wall.

“I used to sell mine just as fast as I could paint them,” she said, and then invested the money back into her art supplies, making a little money but only concerned about breaking even. “I always thought, ‘Oh, I can paint another one.’ I wish I’d kept more of them. I don’t do it so much anymore.”

Peters recently rekindled her love of painting, although what used to be her avocation now serves a higher purpose: Art helps preserve her memory and mental function as she struggles against Alzheimer’s disease. Peters and other Alzheimer’s patients in the area are part of a pilot program at the Morris Museum of Art that examines the link between art and brain function.

As she paints, she and I talk and I notice that, like many sufferers of this disease, she repeats herself often.

“You know, I used to paint,” she tells me again. “I didn’t do that stuff where you can’t tell what it is. I did people and portraiture and landscapes, mostly.”

But we also talk about other aspects of her life.

Her French ancestors, for example, came to the New World in the 16th century and settled in Norfolk, where they encountered English wrath. They moved to Maryland where Lord Calvert was governor, and, because they could read and write, found themselves in his employ. Some of her relatives fought at Valley Forge in Washington’s army. Later, they traveled west to Texas when it was still a part of Mexico. She has a plaque on her wall designating her as a Daughter of the Republic of Texas.

Peters, I also discover, is a world traveler. She visited Cuba before Castro. She’s been through the Panama Canal and all over Europe. She can tell you what she saw when she visited the Louvre.

And I find out that I shouldn’t be fooled by Peters tendency to repeat herself.

“What brought you to all these places?” I ask. The question searches for a military or government connection in her life, something that would offer an opportunity to travel so extensively.

“Well, I’d fly,” she retorts.

Touché.

Peters’ disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 10 percent of adults over the age of 65, and 50 percent over the age of 85, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It causes the brain’s function to deteriorate slowly, destroying memory and eventually all other mental functions. But evidence from recent studies show that working the mind as a muscle can be as important to preventing dementia as regular exercise is to preventing heart disease. It’s “use it or lose it” in the fight, because there is no cure.

The Morris Museum has pulled on the gloves. Community and Public Programs Coordinator Emma Wilson had an idea about how to bring back some of what sufferers have lost through visual art.

“That part of your brain remains somewhat intact, the visual part, so you can offer them a key to unlock some of those memories for just a little while,” Wilson explained.

Wilson comes from a background in social work, and worked with children and families for several years in a variety of settings: outreach services, psychiatric hospitals, public programs. When she read an article in the New York Times about a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the enterprising coordinator saw an opportunity to help people locally.

“The whole idea around it was to stimulate connections between family members and their caregivers,” Wilson said. “It’s also about connection with the group.”

It just so happened that Kathy Tuckey heard a similar story on the radio the same morning. Tuckey is the director of programs and services and development for the East Central Regional Office of the Alzheimer’s Association. The two set up a pilot program through a grant the museum received from the Grassroots Arts Program, part of the Georgia Council for the Arts and the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

Docents at the museum trained in communication styles and local artist Elizabeth Barnes jumped in to offer art instruction. They held tours for residents of Elm Croft Nursing Home in Columbia County and in partnership with the Augusta chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association on Mondays, when the museum is closed to the public, to keep the atmosphere as calm as possible. The response has been as touching as it has been effective.

“You can see the expression on their faces,” said Smith, about the change in her patients after their sessions at the Morris. “They really feel like they’ve done something.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for them to put the right words together,” said Teresa Smith, activities director for Elm Croft Nursing Home on The Pass in Columbia County. “They know what they want to say, but their brain won’t help them to say the right thing… They can get really frustrated.”

That’s what Alzheimer’s does to people. But most of the memories sufferers forget are short-term. “You’d be surprised what they can remember from long ago,” Smith said.

Alzheimer’s is cruel, slowly diminishing one’s ability to function. To have a conversation. To ask for water. To tie their shoes. And ultimately, even to breathe.

“Eventually, it breaks down those basic functions,” Tuckey explained. “You lose the ability to swallow. For some the disease progresses quickly, and, for others, it’s a longer journey. Truly, if you know one person with Alzheimer’s disease, you know one person because everybody is unique.”

That’s a fact that Elm Croft Residence Director John Bowles struggles to explain to patients’ families.

“They ask us for a prediction, and I tell them we just don’t know,” Bowles said. He’s seen patients decline rapidly when they were functioning well. Some, for whom he predicted a rapid descent, function well much longer than expected. Occasionally, he’s seen some who have worsened and then improved.

But research has shown that art therapy can positively impact Alzheimer’s patients. Art gives them a language of pictures when words fail them. Images trigger memories that may have been buried under disease debris. Because the visual cortex remains active in the brain even after verbal communication is diminished, viewing familiar images assists those suffering from Alzheimer’s to remember how to communicate.

“Music and art stay with you,” Bowles said. “It just kind of brings people to life. You see them re-energized.”

I visit Dot Richmond’s tidy room in Heartland Village, Elm Croft’s dementia care unit. Dot was a secretary who lived in Switzerland for long enough to receive the Swiss equivalent of Social Security, but she does not choose to surround herself with pictures of the Alps. She is surrounded with paintings of her Dachshunds, magnolias that remind her of childhood in Camden, S.C., and family pictures.

“That’s a beautiful lady. Who is that picture of?” Bowles asks her, pointing out a striking black and white portrait on her dressing table.

“C’est moi!” she smiles in response.

But she sometimes can’t remember why she’s in Elm Croft.

“I’m here because my daughter lives in Augusta,” she explained with a content smile.“And why else are you here?” Bowles prompts her gently.

“Because of the disease I have… I can’t remember what’s it’s called right now,” she pauses thoughtfully for a few moments before it comes to her. “Oh! Alzheimer’s.”

Her daughter does live nearby and often brings her dog to visit. But the dog has “personality issues,” as Bowles cheerfully describes it, and can’t visit for long periods of time. While pet therapy is a staple in geriatrics, therapists generally prefer dogs who keep their teeth to themselves. And for many, art is better than a wagging, slobbering Labrador.

“Art is still,” explained Tuckey. “Art’s not like a movie or a television program that you have to follow a storyline.”

Art also builds a bridge between the past and present. One gentleman had been a professor at a local university and a practicing artist in an abstract style. He had given it up a few years ago as the disease took its toll. But after a discussion and viewing of work by artist Jasper Johns, he painted a scene clearly reminiscent of the images he had just seen.

“His daughter was very touched by that, because she didn’t think she’d ever see him paint again,” Wilson said. “She took pictures to share with her mom, and he left in a very good mood.”

For many patients, caregivers attend to their every need. But some caregivers know very little about their patients. A nonverbal patient, you see, has a very difficult time communicating needs. But after encountering a large canvas of horses, one gentleman talked for about 15 minutes about his farm and what it had meant to him. His caretaker from Elm Croft had never heard those stories. The experience at the Morris handed her a key to unlock parts of his brain that stored memories of younger years.

“The history of the individual is so important, and they’re so limited in being able to tell us their history,” Tuckey said. “They now know some way to make a connection with this gentleman that they didn’t know before. They can open up ways of communication for him that will give him a better quality of life.”

That is key to the comfort of Elm Croft’s patients, who are often lost in time. Bowles and his staff individualize each patient’s schedule as much as possible, to meet their expectations of life as they know it. If their mother bathed them in the evening when they were children, that is when they will expect to be washed. It’s not just that patients often remember happier times with their families, their children. The past is present and there is dinner to get on the table and homework to be done.

“You have to relate to someone based on what they think reality is, as opposed to what you think reality is,” Bowles said. “Some people get very active around 3 o’clock because it’s time for the kids to come home.”

Peters is not so far along that she cannot communicate her needs. She worries that she is gaining weight in the facility. It happens to many residents.

Alzheimer’s patients often forget to eat, or forget how to cook, especially when they live by themselves. When they arrive at Elm Croft, however, they find that meals are served in the communal dining room. Residents are presented a simple menu with a few choices. Too many and the patients may become confused. Right now, the dementia unit houses only women — women tend to live longer in general than men — and their confusion can be easily mistaken for ladylike patience and courtesy.

Wilson, who has since left the Morris Museum for other horizons, hesitates to call this “art therapy,” preferring to call it simply “therapeutic.”

“We look for those moments where the lights are bright, and that’s what happens with the program that the Morris Museum has embarked on,” Tuckey said. “It gives us multiple moments of light. As far as we know, there’s not another museum in Georgia that is doing this.”

But other venues have come begging the Morris for their help. The Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta got wind of the program and invited Wilson to meet with them in concert with the High Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, both in Atlanta, and the Booth Museum of Western Art in Cartersville, Ga. The organizations are looking to implement a similar program in the metro-Atlanta area. And the Morris is branching out with new programs for the visually impaired.

“Now there is a conversation,” Wilson said. “Folks are coming to the table to talk about this.”

Wilson stressed that it is important to explore these kinds of programs for a museum to matter and be relevant. It brings in part of the community that may not think about attending.

And there is one more benefit for patients. Studies in England have shown that art therapy can relieve symptoms of related depression. A study in Brighton indicated that half of Alzheimer’s sufferers who took part in a course showed a significant improvement in 10 weeks. It is believed that the therapy assists with releasing trapped emotions and with communicating important desires.

“But for the most part, we have a lot of fun,” Smith said. “We do a variety of things just to make them happy, to put a smile on their face each and every day.”

Peters’ portrait of Tuckey is complete. The lilting line drawing sparks the idea to hold an exhibition of the patients’ works. Perhaps a fundraiser. The grant runs out at the end of the year and art supplies are expensive. Peters would paint more, she said, if she had some.

“The oil paints are expensive,” Peters said. “I don’t have anything to do it with. If I had the right kind of pencils or paper, I could do portraiture. But I don’t know where to buy them.”

And then, the familiar refrain.

“I used to sell them,” she said. “Just as fast as I could paint them.”

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