Early-Alzheimer Patients’ Study  |  The First Day 

May 4, 1998


Today, I started teaching a study-program for Alzheimer patients, who are at various stages of their disease. Sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, the study is designed to help residents develop self-expression through the visual and performing arts.  Teaching-artists were hand-picked from the Maryland State Arts Council’s registry, and invited to participate in the study. 

Teachers are allowed to choose any media and project for their students. At the end of the study-program there will be a student art-exhibition with media attention.  I will work one hour per week, from now through August, at the Catonsville Commons facility.  The creator of the program, Alexis and one staff member, Michelle, are my helpers.  My class was the first of the program and no one knew what to expect. We were exhilarated to see the difference just one-hour of art made, and felt as if we truly reached my three students. My students are two women and one man; Mary, Eunice, and Zeno. All seemed to be in their late 80s. 

I started the hour using soothing music, black magic-markers, and large-white paper. I showed patients how to make their strokes to the sway of the music, without looking at their paper (not looking removes the pressure of having to think of a subject to draw).  Mary was the only one who could grasp the concept and by her third drawing was doing large open-freeform shapes. Eunice started with tiny triangles at the top of her paper and by her last drawing did large rectangular shapes in a circle similar to a Sunburst.

Zeno is a challenge, in more ways than one. First, he reminds me of my Dad. Both are gentle, left-handed, polite, and have the same smirk. I do not know if Zeno was motivated to do what I asked, or just did my bidding to get me to stop asking. When Zeno accomplished a task on his own, I found myself almost in tears. The day before the study started, I had visited my dad‘s gravesite, so working with Zeno feels like I am with my father. Quite eerie, but very special.

My second challenge: Zeno did not seem to care whether he drew or not. He kept saying, “It does not matter” to any of my open-ended questions; like “Do you want to use the red or blue color?”  Once he agreed to let me help him draw, I picked up a green magic marker, put it in his left hand, and moved his hand to outline a daisy (there was one on the desk in front of us). Then I chose the orange marker; we put a few dots in the center of the flower.  I asked Zeno to fill in the rest by himself, and he did. His dots were in a systematic pattern.

Alexis, Michelle, and I looked at one another in triumph. We were so happy because we felt we had ‘reached’ Zeno and he was thinking on his own. After he stopped with the flower’s center-circle, we moved on to the petals. I had to help him with the first three (I suggested using lines instead of dots to fill the petals). He did the last three petals by himself.  Then, on his own, he copied the stem and leaves, from a drawing I had done on a separate piece of paper.

I began with three students, but two more are scheduled to join my group. The project I chose for my students, is to ultimately work with cardboard, building shapes in relief to create a wall-hanging. The shapes will be traced from the students’ original drawings, cut-out by staff, glued and then painted by the students. Of course, all will be adjusted to their individual capabilities.

I am psyched.