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Painting the Past : Alzheimer's Patients Find a Way to Express Their Memories


Edith Wakefield, 85, sat silently in the sunlit room off the back-yard patio, her hands folded on her lap, her porcelain-thin body held erect, the perfect picture of untroubled genteelness.

But the image was deceiving.

Alzheimer's disease has devastated her mind, leaving her in endless confusion, her thinking processes shattered, her life reduced to being fed, clothed and bathed by others.

Asked simple questions by staff members of the Autumn Years board-and-care residence in Anaheim, she can only smile mechanically, producing no sounds, showing no comprehension in her eyes.

But earlier this year, she was given a paintbrush and watercolors. She started with tiny paintings of a few leaves or flowers, then moved on to larger depictions of hills and fields--all the time bringing back to life some of her most distant memories.

Her warmest, most indestructible memory yet: a softly colored, full-blooming tree with red lines coursing through the center like a heartbeat. The title given her work, "My Flowering Tree."

"She's reliving some of her earliest and deepest memories when she was growing up on the farm in Nebraska," said her daughter, Donna, of Garden Grove. "I think she's found a way to communicate in the only way she can--without struggle."

The Wakefield watercolor is one of 32 works by 26 local patients in a most unusual exhibition put together by the Alzheimer's Assn. of Orange County.

Organizers consider this Orange County exhibition, called "Memories in the Making '89," to be the first of its kind in the nation--a show devoted entirely to artworks by victims of Alzheimer's and related brain-impairing disorders.

The show, which will be touring 10 Home Savings of America branches until Dec. 1, represents patients from the Garden Grove Community Adult Day Care Center and Saddleback Valley YMCA Adult Day Center, as well the Autumn Years home.

To backers, the show underscores the prevalence of Alzheimer's, an irreversible, degenerative disease that damages the brain and results in vastly impaired memory, thinking and behavior. Nationwide, about 4 million persons are afflicted with Alzheimer's, including 24,000 in Orange County.

And organizers hope such an exhibition will help counter the stigmas about Alzheimer's victims. Despite the wave of media and other reports in the past several years on the once obscure disease, misconceptions remain, association members said.

"There was some skepticism about this show, people who felt, 'What's the use? These victims are empty shells; there's no one there,"' said Selly Jenny, the Orange County association board member who organized the show.

Dr. Robert Pfeffer, UC Irvine associate professor of neurology, said the attitude that "everything is lost is a great oversimplification." The exhibition "tells us in a startlingly beautiful, expressive way that certain functions are spared (in Alzheimer's victims), including some creative ones," he said.

While a few works depict the victims' anger and frustrations over their mental deterioration, most of the "Memories in the Making" works are in a sunnier vein, from whimsical treatments of landscapes, dwellings and animals to more abstract, almost impressionistic shapes.

"Although most of the (exhibit) people are untutored, they are clearly in touch with their artistic impulses," said Chapman College art professor Richard Turner, director of Chapman's Guggenheim Gallery (where the exhibition was first held, Oct. 16 to 18). "Some reveal a sense of focus that is all the more remarkable considering the chaos brought about by their disease."

Beyond the artistic and scientific implications, the most immediate--and most gratifying--impact is on the families. To them, such an art program is an unexpected gift.

"Seeing (her art) is comforting, even though it's only a fragment, just a glimpse of her inner self," explained Floyd Friesen of Fullerton, whose 84-year mother, Mina, is part of the Alzheimer's Assn. exhibition. "But it helps us realize that my mother is still very much with us, that we haven't yet lost her.

Two photographs of Mina Friesen--one taken 35 years ago, the other just last Easter--are atop the living-room piano in her son's Fullerton home. It is a fitting and touching familial gesture.

"She loved to have us all gathered around the piano while she played the old songs and hymns, especially on the holidays," recalled Floyd, a retired Navy captain and one of five Friesen children raised on farms in Illinois and Nebraska during the Depression '30s. "And she adored children--any children!"

But Mina, stricken by Alzheimer's, hasn't played the piano at home or in church for years. And three years ago, when her erratic behavior, her wanderings from the Fullerton house and the 24-hour care she needed became too overwhelming, she was placed in the Autumn Years facility in Anaheim.

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