Treating Alzheimers through the creative arts brings results

Boats by Hilgos

Boats by Hilgos

Watching her mother Hilda Gorenstein slowly disappear into the labyrinth of Alzheimers diseaseBerna Huebner asked her: “Would you like to paint again?” Her mother , a celebrated and acclaimed painter known as Hilgos, responded: “Yes, I remember better when I paint.”

This small comment inspired her daughter to seek ways to help her mother reconnect with her artistic life, and with those around her. The doctor suggested to Huebner that she could link her mother with some students from the Art Institute of Chicago, and following this advice, several became involved with Hilgos. Slowly and patiently, Hilgos rediscovered what she loved to do best – paint. It was through her painting that Huebner was better able to communicate with her mother – not in the same way, but differently, and with a new language.

Following this experience, Huebner was inspired to make a documentary that explores how the arts can transform the lives of those living with different forms of dementia. Produced in collaboration with film director Eric Ellena, the movie, “I Remember Better When I Paint,” celebrates the courage of her mother who rediscovered her painting gift, and explores the experiences of others who are discovering the influence of art on cognitive ability.

Narrated by Olivia de Haviland, with some in-depth interviews with leading neurologists, the movie shows that.. there is far more to the brain than previously realized. Well-meaning caregivers for Hilgos mistakenly thought that “her lights were out,” but increasingly studies show that there is more going on in consciousness than originally thought.  Hilgos was not mentally vegetative but very much alive and just needed help to find a way to reconnect. For her, the act of renewing her relationship with the beauty of art was that pathway.

This shows the need to expand how we think about consciousness. Does it solely reside in the brain, or is there a larger, deeper consciousness to which we are connected? These questions have been explored by thinkers in every age, especially during the last 150 years, just as many laws of the universe – previously unknown to us – have become clear through new scientific investigation.

19th century Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger wrote, “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

Exploring “consciousness” through a spiritual lens, 19th century theologian and health researcher Mary Baker Eddy understood the importance of these questions to human well being. As a result of her healing work, she saw through the limits of the human mind to the origin of consciousness in a more expansive spiritual context. She wrote in one of her writings: “All that is beautiful and good in your individual consciousness is permanent.” This thoughtful idea has led me to consistently consider what ideas and memories I want to remember.

Yet, in a materialistic age such as ours where everything needs analyzing and probing from a microscopic physical basis, we still find ourselves often at a loss to explain things such as how art, for example, can re-engage a person where drugs have failed.

Tony Jones, Chancellor of the Art Institute in Chicago states in the documentary: “Somehow the painting says something to [those with Alzheimer’s]. Somehow, they begin to have a dialogue with the painting.” Judy Holstein, Director, CJE Senior Life Day Service, Chicago, also in the documentary, agrees, adding that, “the creative arts bypass the limitations and simply go to the strengths…. People still have their imaginations intact all the way.”

Many families grieve when they think their loved ones are lost to dementia, but Hilgos’s experience highlights the need to look beyond the purely physical picture. As President of Alzheimers International, Yasmin Aga Khan states, “So many people give up with this disease and it is so important not to give up.”

Considering Eddy’s expansive view of consciousness as permanent, we can see an open door to greater possibilities than previously contemplated regarding memory and communication. There is so much that we have yet to learn about the origin and scope of consciousness, what to cultivate in our memories, and the resulting impact on health. New insights are being discovered every day.

Hilgos’ story is more than just inspiring. Despite suffering from Alzheimers, she discovered that she had not lost her capacity to imagine and to express it in her art. This can serve as a reminder that we do not have to limit our own or a loved one’s potential to the human brain. And that beauty has a deeply healing effect in our lives. When we cultivate a sense of divine consciousness and spiritual beauty for others as well as ourselves, we are reminded who we – and they – really are.

This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun HERE

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