Body memory

"I remember better when I paint"

By Robert Whitcomb, The Providence Journal

Last spring, I visited Chicago, on assignment by the nonprofit Miller-McCune magazine, to look into some newish ways of treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease. I did this after seeing a movie called “I Remember Better When I Paint,’’ put together by a friend of mine called Berna Huebner and the French director Eric Ellena.


"I Remember Better When I Paint."

The film is about using the arts to connect with patients suffering mostly from Alzheimer’s but from other dementias, too.

The idea came from Mrs. Huebner’s experience with her mother, Hilda Gorenstein.

Mrs. Gorenstein, after a distinguished career as a painter, had, in her 80s, developed Alzheimer’s and stopped painting. She was moved into a nursing home and withdrew into a silent, unhappy and sometimes agitated state.

There seemed to be no way of pulling her out of her condition. But then one day Berna asked her mother if she’d like to begin painting again. Mrs. Gorenstein surprisingly responded: “I remember better when I paint.

Several art students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were recruited to work with her, encouraged by her daughter and a neurologist.

Listen to Bob's "I Believe" here. The piece orginated at WRNI, the NPR station in Providence.

It was tough sledding for a while, but finally Mrs. Gorenstein started to improve as she painted, becoming less withdrawn and agitated. From time to time, she got deeply involved in doing her pictures, and would chat and make quirky observations, with some of her trademark sardonic humor. In short, when she was working with the students, she was often engaged, and much calmer than she had been.

Perhaps she was exercising a bit of what some neurologists call "body memory,’’ something different from what we usually think of as as expressed in our thoughts.

Increasingly, professionals dealing with dementia are finding that the arts — painting, sculpture, music, dance and so on — are powerful ways to connect with Alzheimer's patients.

I believe (or hope!) that as I head deeper into the autumn of my years, that the plasticity of the brain will continue to astound. There are different sorts of memory and not all of them are what we might traditionally call intelligence.

But beyond that, isn’t the big lesson here for all of us to live more in the moment, however good or bad our memory? I must try it myself some day soon while I still know I’m doing it!

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