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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:54:33 AM CST

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Art offers new hope to those with Alzheimer’s

by Dayna Dion
May 04, 2010

For many people, an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis spells the end. It means that, eventually, the lights will be on, but no one will be home. Or that life will be spent staring out a window.

The new documentary film, “I Remember Better When I Paint,” suggests that doesn’t have to be the case. Inspired by the late Chicago artist, Hilda Gorenstein, also known as Hilgos, it illustrates how the arts can engage and activate areas of the brain not affected by Alzheimer’s.

“There are parts of the brain that are still functioning in people with Alzheimer’s disease and you can connect with these parts through the creative arts," said Berna Huebner, Hilgos’ daughter and co-director of the film, which premiered in Chicago Monday night at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The issue is that many people don’t understand that it’s possible for people with Alzheimer’s to really engage, Dr. John Zeisel, president of the Hearthstone Alzheimer’s Foundation, said in the film.

“The problem we face with families is that they begin with this negative attitude that the person is no longer there,” he added. “We have to help families understand that the person is still there. Then the families treat them with greater respect, greater dignity.”

Medications can extend the lives of those with Alzheimer’s, but don’t enhance them, according to Zeisel. 

"The problem we face today is that, while medications can keep people alive with Alzheimer’s a little bit longer, we’re not giving them a life worth living,” he said.

That’s where art therapy comes in, said Judy Holstein, director of Adult Day Services at CJE (Coucil for Jewish Elderly) SeniorLife. It helps those with Alzheimer’s express themselves non-verbally in a way they can’t through verbal communication, and unlock memories.

“The creative arts are an avenue to tap into a non-verbal, emotional place in a person,” she said.

As it turns out,  the brain’s emotional center functions throughout the life of people with Alzheimer’s, and Zeisel said that "emotional center responds to art.”

Creative Arts Therapist Ralitza Vladimirova explains the phenomenon like this: Oftentimes, people with Alzheimer’s get stuck. They repeat the same old stories because their brains can’t access short–term memories.  But “through creativity, the brain gets mobilized in a way that does start to create a new pathway to information,” she believes.

It also gives people with Alzheimer’s a sense of confidence and pride, said Melissa Kahn, president of Kahn HealthCare Consulting and board member of Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“At a time when they’re losing their abilities, it’s a chance for them to have success and accomplish something,” she said.

The challenge comes in finding ways to expose more suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to the creative arts, whether  through painting, drawing, music or a trip to a local museum.

According to the film, Alzheimer’s affects 6 million Americans and half of those over the age of 85.  However, less than 15 percent engage in physical, occupational or creative therapies.

A lack of funds and, in turn, an absence of training for clinicians may explain why. Also, some medical professionals consider creative art therapies a luxury, not a necessity, Kahn said.

While new research pointing to the effectiveness of art therapies is emerging, the extent to which the arts will be integrated into Alzheimer's treatment programs is to be determined.

“We are in early days yet,” said Tony Jones, chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “But we do hope this film will begin to educate the larger public, medical professionals, therapists, caregivers and families, and show them there are new pathways for engaging with a loved one you may have thought you lost.”