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Art Therapy for Alzheimer's: "I Remember Better When I Paint"

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I didn't know much about Alzheimer's before watching "I Remember Better When I Paint" and nor did I really care. I'm not a monster-- it's just that the disease had never affected anyone I knew. This is not to say I was indifferent to the suffering experienced by those with the disease, or the sacrifices made by their caretakers. However, I had picked my battles with injustice and left this fight for someone else to wage. And wage on they did. Berna Huebner and Eric Ellena have crafted a poignant documentary about hope in a world where hope is seldom found.

"I Remember Better When I Paint" follows the progress of Alzheimer's patients who are introduced to the creative arts. Once disconnected from the world, these Alzheimer's sufferers are suddenly brought back-- be it by a discussion of a Seurat painting or a debate over what color to apply for their Renoir reproduction. One of my favorite parts of the film was when one elderly gentleman was asked to draw Honolulu; rather than white sand beaches and shiny hotels, he drew a war-ship with 'Destroyer' on its bow. He was a late-stage Alzheimer's patient having a very lucid memory of his days in the service. Amazing.

Before watching this film, when I thought of Alzheimer's, I pictured an elderly person spaced-out in front of a television set. I did not picture a 50- something, actively engaged in his community suddenly subject to severe memory loss yet fighting to keep his essence in tact. Enter Skip Curtis. Skip was 59 when diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Yes, 59-years young. The documentary begins with he and his wife in a doctor's office discussing experimental treatments to slow the effects of his Alzheimer's. The couple holds hands as they share their disappointment with conventional treatments and their openness to try alternative remedies. We see Skip struggle to remember his experience with pharmaceuticals and his wife encouragingly filling in the gaps. This is one of the many moving moments in a film about the human spirit and the fight to keep it alive.

The myth about Alzheimer's is that it is a veritable death sentence. That once diagnosed, a person will ultimately deteriorate into an unrecognizable shell of his/her former self. But as the filmmakers demonstrate, this need not be the case. The creative arts can reunite even a late stage Alzheimer's sufferer with parts of his/her former self. These non-medicinal options render success rates comparable to their pharmaceutical counter-parts. Indeed, art therapy can provide outlets of expression for an Alzheimer's sufferer where conventional means of expression prove insufficient.

"I Remember Better When I Paint" not only brought the issue of Alzheimer's into my home, but did so without resorting to cheap scare tactics or stereotypes. It is sensitive and at times even funny, and the audience members find themselves connecting with a demographic that is considered un-connectable. I definitely caught my hard-nosed boyfriend cooing during several parts of the film.

"I Remember Better When I Paint" is narrated by Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland (of Gone with the Wind) and features a stirring interview with Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of acclaimed American actress, and Alzheimer's sufferer, Rita Hayworth, who took up painting while struggling with the disease and produced beautiful works of art also featured in the film.

"I Remember Better When I Paint" screens next at the Louvre in Paris on March 25 and States-side at the Art Institute of Chicago in May. For screenings in your area or to learn how to get involved with the film and its foundation, please visit "I Remember Better When I Paint."

"I Remember When I Paint" is available on DVD at www.irememberbetterwhenipaint.com and on Amazon.

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