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


At first, like some of the other residents there, she didn't seem very interested in the weekly art sessions. But the art therapist, Marilyn Oropeza, kept encouraging her, placing the brush in her hand, tracing an outline of a house or animal for Mina to fill in with colors.

Slowly, Mina joined the others in the mural-coloring ventures, such as painting folksy winter scenes to hang on the walls for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter.

Then one day, ignoring a suggestion that she try painting a flower by herself, she struck out on her own, painting a bold, swirling abstract work of varying shapes amid hues of orange, pink, green and purple.

To Floyd Friesen, the painting, later titled "Color Soft Egg" for the exhibition, evoked the early years on the farm, some shapes suggesting holiday festivities, another even a womb.

His mother's design, he said during a recent visit to the board-and-care residence, "is very much of family and home--everything that is dearest to my mother."

Another painting in the show, "Self Portrait" by Joel, is not so gentle, not so nostalgic.

Joel, 85, who attends the Saddleback Valley YMCA Adult Day Care Center in Mission Viejo, painted the harshly distorted, almost grotesque portrait of a man's face shortly after he joined the center last January.

To center director Marcia Norian, "Self Portrait" is a striking example of a victim's anger over the growing helplessness brought on by Alzheimer's--"his image of a victim from deep within," she said, "looking at how the disease has imprisoned them."

His works since have seemed calmer. He has helped other day-care center members on mural-type paintings, including some having to do with one of his great loves, the sea and boating.

And Joel, a former librarian with Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, is still capable of engaging in jaunty chatter, even though he doesn't stay long on any one subject and needs constant prompting about details from his wife.

His latest artwork, a cheerful collage of multicolored paper shapes, has a place of honor in the couple's Laguna Hills home. It is proudly displayed under glass atop their large living-room coffee table.

Sitting at home one evening, Joel seemed to remember little of his artworks, only to say, "For an old guy, it's fun, it's creating something."

But Joel's wife added: "If the (art program) can help my husband and others maintain their sense of esteem, their dignity and pride--even just awhile longer--then it has more than proven its worth."

The terrible relentlessness, the irreversible nature of Alzheimer's is not avoided in the "Memories in the Making" show.

It is depicted with graphic bleakness in a seven-picture sequence by Peter Idsinga--all of the same subject, a windmill in his native Netherlands, but painted over a period of eight years.

The works of the retired dairyman, who had some art training, are part of a study by Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, director of UCLA's Dementia Research Program, in one of the few such art-related projects in the country.

The first windmill, drawn by Idsinga before he showed symptoms of having Alzheimer's, is confidently composed, richly shaded and precisely detailed.

The pictures that follow reveal Idsinga's descent: the aimless composition, the haphazard detailing. By the final image in 1987, the windmill is shorn of vanes, the main structure nothing but wavering scrawl-like lines.

Idsinga's works "trace the insidiousness of the disease, the unmistakable erosion of his mind and control," said Cummings. "You can see with your own eyes the disintegration of that part of his being."

Idsinga, 78, no longer lives at home with his wife, Bernice, in Whittier. He now lives in a board-and-care facility in West Covina.

"He doesn't seem to remember anything. He doesn't speak anymore, not even my name. Sometimes I think he recognizes me," said his wife.

But another part of him--his art--has vanished for good. "He can't draw anymore," Bernice added. "He hasn't in two years."

The works of Kathy, another resident at Autumn Years, aren't in the current exhibition. But to show organizers her story may be closer to the heart of the art project.

As art therapist Oropeza related the incident:

"For weeks, Kathy, who almost never says a word, would sit and draw the same sketchy scene over and over--a little house there, a few trees here, some kind of brook there. She never varied it; she never tired of it.

"Her husband visited every day but not during the art session, until this one Thursday morning. He sat close to Kathy, watching as she started her usual painting. Suddenly he began to cry. He knew immediately what the scene was."

It was where they had taken their honeymoon.

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