This is a story celebrating the arts and creativity, an excerpt from my book Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
We are delighted to be presenting a program in partnership with the Liberty Library Art Gallery, the Liberty Arts Commission, and the Heart of America Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. If you’re in our area, please feel join us.
The Hills Are Alive
I miss my mom and decide to attend a Memories in the Making art class, designed for people who are living with dementia. I want to meet some of the artists and feel my connection to Mom, who was an avid painter in her earlier years, through the artistic process. Still, I feel nervous as I walk through the nursing home and into a small activity area.
“We have a visitor today,” Harriet, the facilitator, tells the assembled group.
Everyone looks up.
“Come paint with us,” a woman says.
I smile and begin to relax. Harriet hands me bowl of water, paper, brush and watercolors and finds me a place. Then she introduces me to the artists.
Ed, a former veterinarian, has a photograph of a great blue heron in front him. He is a slight, spry man who looks like he could fix any emergency.
“That bird is really coming along,” Harriet tells Ed. Using colored pencils, he has sketched the upper half of the heron. The bird has an inquisitive look. Now Ed is concentrating on drawing an assortment of cattails, reeds, and other marsh plants in the background.
“Ed is married to Rhea,” Harriet tells me, as I look at the splash of free-form color on Rhea’s page. Rhea, who also has Alzheimer’s, is creating a sunset with vivid oranges and purples. I smile at the difference in their art—Ed’s controlled sense of detail, Rhea’s spontaneous bursts of color. I imagine those traits made for a good partnership.
“We’ve been together twenty-two years,” Rhea says. She has a plump welcoming look about her. “Or maybe it’s twenty-five years. Do you remember?” she asks Ed.
“A long time,” Ed says.
Norman has beautiful silver hair, deep brown eyes, and is dressed in a Polo shirt and slacks. He looks like he could easily be running a meeting or entertaining important clients on the golf course. Formerly an engineer, he was living in New Orleans, Harriet explains, and was moved up here to be near family. He is recreating a mountain lake scene and has quickly captured the essence of his photograph.
As I sit down to my own paper and watercolors, I hear someone from the room next-door singing, The Sound of Music.
Harriet sings along and we chime in. As I paint, I feel a sense of connection. Harriet knows how to create a space where the artist can blossom.
Harriet starts a verse of Over There and everyone joins in.
After some time, Harriet says, “It’s almost time to stop for today.” I take a final walk around the table. Ed’s heron looks ready to enter an Audubon competition. Rhea’s sunset is colorful and dramatic. Norman’s hills look complete and his lake is taking shape. My own painting looks plain and unsophisticated next to the rest of the art.
“Have any of these people had art lessons before?” I ask, as I help Harriet empty water bowls and clear away used paper towels.
“No,” she tells me.
For most of these artists, this is a tender and uncertain time, a period when memory and rational thinking are often blotchy and blurred, where words can fall away as quickly as autumn leaves. This art program gives them a chance to express themselves freely and creatively. Out of the mental chaos and confusion, the art emerges, vibrant, true, and exciting.
As I am taking leave of Harriet, Norman comes back into the room.
“Is there white?” he says. “I’m going to need white for the snow on the mountain tops.”
“I’ll have some for next time,” Harriet promised. “Meanwhile, would you like one of these white pencils?”
Norman takes the pencil. “The snow makes all the difference,” he tells me. His walk is steady and sure and he leaves the room humming, “The hills are alive.”
How can we all stay connected with our creative spirits during the dementia journey?
I’ve been very inspired by people who are connecting both with care partners and with those living with dementia, through artistic and creative expression. I recently read this blog by Matt Stevens, a designer and illustrator based in Charlottesville, NC. Best known for his MAX100 project, 100 interpretations of the same object (the Nike sneaker). Matt has also worked on identity and branding for clients such as Pinterest, Facebook, Evernote, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the NBA. His thoughts on creativity and repetition seem applicable to the care partner’s journey.
How Rules and Repetition Inspire Creativity
For centuries, artists have been exploring the benefits of working with constraints. Bach composed the Goldberg variations — an aria and 30 variations for a harpsichord — in 1741. Picasso created an 11-lithograph series of bull illustrations in 1945. Matt Stevens reinterpreted the same object in his MAX100 project and has serialized a number of his other works as well. Great artists and designers impose constraints to inspire their creativity.
“I noticed how often I create repetition in my work – systems for myself to operate within,” Matt says. “I asked myself: Why do I create this repetition? Why do I love series so much?”
Limitations force you to be inventive and create new paths.
The rules were simple: the shoe had to be in the same position on the page (it couldn’t be turned), and it had to be fundamentally changed. It wouldn’t be enough to add patterns around it: he would iterate on the shoe itself, over and over again.
“The idea is to take something, abstract and change it and let the narrow focus of the project give you a sense of freedom as you move through it. How far could I push it? How much could I abstract it?”
For Matt, this exercise led to a successful Kickstarter that turned into a book, client work with Nike themselves, plus an art exhibition in New York. #
One of the ways I tried to learn from creative limitation was exploring new ways to answers my mom’s repetitive questions. I also experimented with new ways to bring joy and creativity to our time together in the care home. Even though Matt’s tips are targeted towards the artistic community, I find them thought provoking and hope you will too.
Here are a few more ideas from Matt:
No project happens overnight. Your process for setting a project with the right limitations is important.
- Define the problem
Choose your subject and your challenge. You may be trying to understand a fellow designer’s technique. You may really just love an icon. You may want to learn a new skill. Define the problem and what you will focus on. The MAX100 project, for instance, started as a project for Matt to learn more about illustration.
- Limit your options in solving the problem
Impose a structure and set some rules to explore your concept. What rules will you create by? Create a baseline structure to operate within, whether that’s the medium you are trying to learn, or the logo you are trying to explore.
- Iterate, explore, learn, repeat
Don’t get stuck on the unknowns. Don’t be afraid to imitate the styles of people you admire as you go, either: these can set off their own series of explorations. Pick those apart and understand how they work. You may start to see the task in new and unexpected ways, and explore anew from there.
Remember that when you get stuck, sometimes the answer is not more, but less.
To learn more about Matt Stevens, visit
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
Dancing is like dreaming with your feet! ~Constanze
During my mom’s dementia journey, movement often inspired and connected us. Here is one of those magical moments, excerpted from my book, Love in the land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. The story is set in my mom’s memory care unit.
“Let’s dance,” she says, motioning everyone to stand.
Mom looks up and I offer her my hand.
“Want to dance?” I ask her.
“Want to dance?” I repeat, making a swirling motion.
“What else,” she says, standing up.
My parents have danced to this song many times, my mother coaxing my father onto the dance floor. I hold hands with Mom and move back and forth to the music. She laughs and does the same. I twirl her, and she walks around in a jaunty little circle. For a moment, her energy and charm have returned. I feel like I have found my long-lost mother. If my father were here, he would not be surprised. He is certain she will return to him and takes every word, every gesture of affection, every smile as a sign of hope.
“Hope is everything,” Dad told me just last week. “I find something hopeful and I milk it for all it’s worth. If it doesn’t work out, then I search for something else. Otherwise, I am in despair.”
I twirl my mom again. It is actually our first real dance together …
I loved my dance with my mother for the deep connection it gave me. My friend Natasha Jen Goldstein-Levitas reminds me of the other benefits of movement. Natasha is a Philadelphia, PA based Registered Dance/Movement Therapist (R-DMT) and Reiki Practitioner who does heartfelt and creative work with those living with dementia. She writes: “Among the creative arts therapy modalities, dance/movement therapy (DMT) offers the opportunity for individuals to express themselves, regardless of functional level. DMT engages the sensory systems and stimulates the physical, emotional, and cognitive areas of functioning. This movement is also a wonderful outlet for care partners.”
Samuel Beckett sums this up, He says, “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”
To read Natasha’s blog, please visit:
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
I woke up in the middle of the night with the answer I’d been seeking: I would self-publish the book of essays I had written about my journey through my mother’s Alzheimer’s and I would donate all the monies from the book to Alzheimer’s research and programs.
It was the summer of 2006, and for weeks I’d been wrestling with a question:
Should I seek a traditional publisher or independently produce the book? Both seemed daunting; in the past, I had primarily written books for and with other people and publication wasn’t my problem. But this book, Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, was the work of my heart, born out of my desire to stay connected with my mother and find the joys and blessings in her experiences with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to share my stories of hope so they might help other caregivers.
“What about donating a portion of the proceeds?” my partner Ron asked. I was already making a marginal living; Ron’s suggestion was practical but I shook my head.
“I think I’m supposed to donate it all,” I told him. “That way, instead of selling a book, I’ll be raising money for a cause I’m passionate about.”
I talked through the details, consulting knowledgeable friends, an attorney and our local Alzheimer’s Association. My mission: to use the book as a catalyst to raise $50,000 for Alzheimer’s. There was one glitch; I estimated the cost of designing and printing could be in the thousands. Where would I get the money? But even though I was often worried about funds, this hurdle didn’t bother me. My intuition was strong. I was supposed to do this and would raid my savings if needed. Ron was excited about the project and pledged to work with me and help me make it happen.
Over the next months, Ron and I spent hours with Rex and Jane, working on design, cover, production and print details. Endlessly patient, they were dedicated to creating the book I envisioned. And they kept their fees to a minimum.
When the finished product arrived months later, I felt a sense of pride and completion. The beautiful cover featured one of my mother’s paintings, the type was easy to read, the interior design inviting.
Ron and I had often performed my stories together, and we began speaking and sharing stories from the book with Alzheimer’s associations, healthcare professionals, caregivers’ groups and others. When we traveled, we reached out to Alzheimer’s groups to set up speaking engagements. We were always moved and inspired by the people we met.
“Your story is my story,” a man in Istanbul, Turkey said.
“I’ve been caring for my mother for ten years,” a woman from Brooklyn, New York said. “It has been the most meaningful experience in my life.”
“When I learned Mama had dementia, I quit my job in Houston and moved back home,” a woman in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands said. “I wanted my children to know their grandmother in all the stages of her life and I wanted to be here to care for her.”
Sometimes we spoke in front of hundreds of people; other times we talked to groups of ten. When possible, we brought books and people often donated more than the suggested fifteen-dollar price, knowing that all the proceeds went to Alzheimer’s research and programs.
By 2011 we had done it! We had raised $50,000 for Alzheimer’s. But we kept going; we were still learning and growing. The work was healing for both of us and we loved connecting with other caregivers.
In 2012 I was ready to give the book a wider distribution and reached out to Central Recovery Press. They published an enhanced edition in 2013. Today, our fundraising journey continues as we donate a portion of our proceeds to this important cause.
The self-published version of Love in the Land of Dementia served as a catalyst for raising more than $80,000 for Alzheimer’s programs and research. My stories of looking for the blessings in the journey reached thousands of people, fulfilling my goal of making a contribution to the world. And the bonus was that both Ron and I had changed.
by Deborah Shouse