Treasure for Alzheimer’s – Reflections

The following is the Foreword from the newly-released book, Treasure for Alzheimer’s – Reflecting on experiences with the art of Lester E. Potts, Jr., by Richard L. Morgan, PhD and Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN. I am forever grateful to my friend and mentor, Richard Morgan, for modeling what it means to be a true elder and lover of all the beauty contained within the human soul.

The book is available for purchase at https://www.createspace.com/5708351

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

He still had a story to share. But had Alzheimer’s stolen his voice? I felt it was stealing mine.

The year was 2002, and my father, Lester E. Potts, Jr., had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was my strong and solid oak, the best man I’ve ever known – Great Depression’s utilitarian child, a military veteran, a community pillar, and an exemplar of faith and integrity.

He could fix any broken thing. But now, he himself was broken and could not be mended.

A neurologist and an only child, I felt inadequate in both roles standing in the shadow of the disease which has been called the greatest healthcare challenge of the modern era. In all those times that I had needed him, he had not failed me. But I felt I was failing him and my mother. There were no effective treatments to offer. I knew little about caregiving. I felt lost and helpless in a silent screaming night.

He was suffering. I could see it in his face. He stammered. He cried. He got lost. He lashed out.

But he was still Lester. Identity is not something that fades away. He still had a story…and a beautiful soul. And the story would indeed be told.

We were able to enroll Dad in Caring Days, a Dementia daycare center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: a place of joy, acceptance, laughter and love. There he was validated and appreciated in his present state, and such compassionate care enabled his spirit to shine again.

Then he met George Parker, a retired artist who volunteered at the center to share his gift with others. Dad had never shown any talent for art making, having been a sawmiller and farmer with little bent for the aesthetic. But something happened, and Dad began to paint watercolors – vibrant, colorful expressions of his earlier life and experiences – to the amazement of family and friends. He seemed to love the creativity and lost himself in each moment of art making. He was proud of his new-found gift, wanting to share it with everyone he encountered.

George kindled Dad’s nascent creativity by sharing gifts of his own, and by being generous and compassionate enough to reach out and develop a relationship with someone who would have been marginalized and pitied by most – yet who still had the innate human need to be known and heard, to be valued and treated with dignity simply by virtue of being alive; of having been created by God and given a unique name.

He was, he will be, he IS Lester. His life IS a work of art. And to learn his story and be in relationship with him IS a gift of exceptional worth.

Viewing Dad’s art and seeing the beneficial effect this experience was having on him gave me hope and healing, and sparked something inside of me. I started writing poetry, having never before done so. Unfiltered emotions welled up, and I found myself expressing deep waves of gratitude which stood paradoxically against the anguished cries of a few months prior. Through writing I became lost in the flow of the present moment, suspended between escape and deep connection. Lester seemed to be having a similar experience with art making.

Something was stirring our souls to dance in the desert, to sing in the storm. That something had been shared through art, relationship and creativity, and in the giving of gifts.

Near the end of Dad’s life when he was no longer painting, we took him to my office to see one of his early works, a painting which we came to call “The Broken Jar.” It had been a favorite, but we wondered if he would recognize it in his advanced state. Parked in a wheelchair in front of the painting, he directed his gaze upward, seemingly drawn into the very core of its colors and lines. For thirty minutes he took it in without showing any emotion or saying a word. As Mother and I rolled him away, we wondered if he remembered painting it; if, through viewing, he had been able to reconnect to a part of himself, perhaps a part long hence cast aside by the callous hand of Alzheimer’s.

Reflecting on our journey with Dad, I am reminded of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, which surely carry a weight of truth:

“Ring the bells that still can ring                                                                                                                                 Forget your perfect offering.                                                                                                                             There is a crack in everything,                                                                                                                          That’s how the light gets in.” 

Moving several years forward, having immersed myself in the world of Alzheimer’s and Dementia advocacy fueled by the power of Dad’s art and story, I was asked by fellow advocate Lynda Everman to be a co-convener and medical advisor for ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s, a newly mobilized community of faith leaders seeking to end the stigma, support compassionate care and advance the search for cure. Our first group initiative was to author and publish Seasons of Caring, a multi-faith collection of meditations for Dementia caregivers which features some of Dad’s watercolors.

It was in this effort that Lynda introduced me to Dr. Richard Morgan, a retired Presbyterian minister, well-known author, and expert on the theology of aging, end of life, and Dementia care. Serving together on the book’s editorial board (with Lynda, Rabbi Steven Glazer, and Max Wallack), we became friends, and his intellect, faith, humility, energy and passion for life have amazed and inspired us all. He is a true elder in every positive sense, and I am humbly grateful to know him and to be in his circle of influence.

Facilitating support sessions using Seasons of Caring with groups of caregivers and persons with Alzheimer’s and other Dementias, Dr. Morgan began to observe that those with Dementia seemed to be drawn to the art in the book. In certain cases, individuals who had not responded meaningfully in some time were reacting to the art. So he decided to try an experiment.

He asked me to send him a book of Dad’s art and some background about his life, so that he could begin showing it to persons with Dementia living in the specialty care unit of the assisted living community where he resides. I did this, and Dr. Morgan began using the art and recording his experiences with these individuals, many of whom are in advanced states of impairment.

Dr. Morgan has seen, in some cases, unexpected and miraculous results. The art seems to be unlocking deep memories and the emotions tied to them, fostering expression where none has been seen for months. Dr. Morgan perceives there to be a strong healing element contained within the viewing and subsequent expressive experience.

This sharing also rekindles his own precious memories and reconnects him to people and places of the past, as he pushes a walker draped with bags of art and journals from station to station along his mercy-fueled pilgrimage.

This may be the first time that the art of a lay person with Alzheimer’s has been used therapeutically with people who also have the disease or Dementia of other causes. As a neurologist, I have been intrigued and excited to learn of Dr. Morgan’s experiences, and am so grateful to him for taking the time to record his observations and share them in this book. We hope Dr. Morgan’s work will serve as a pilot for the broader use of Dad’s art, as well as the artistic work of others with cognitive impairment to make life brighter for those dealing with a wide range of illness and disability and for their caregivers.

But as a fellow caregiver and person of faith, I must say that Dr. Morgan’s efforts touch me on a deeper level. An elder himself who also is dealing with challenges brought by aging, Dr. Morgan’s calling to selflessly serve those less fortunate rises above any hardship. True, his inquisitive mind seeks to make careful observations and diligently record them, producing an analysis of the effects which were noted. But it is his heart which reaches out to these others, living heroes who are courageously and silently fighting the greatest battle of their lives, lost and alone.

Love is like that. It moves out toward the lonely, fills the silent places with a song, and splashes color on a gray palette. Love takes a hand for dancing. Love never cries alone. Love never forgets a name.

Lynda Everman recently shared this quote from Dr. Morgan: “The distinguishing mark of a spiritual person is turning strangers into friends.” I thank Lynda for introducing me to Richard Morgan. I am grateful that an elderly artist befriended my father and passed along his beautiful gift. I’m thankful for all the loving care my mother provided. I thank God for an old sawmiller named Lester, whose art is bringing back the stolen voices of people with Alzheimer’s and other Dementias.

And I am thankful for Dr. Morgan’s example of making friends with people who have Dementia, proving that it is never too late to engage them in relationships. Richard, thank you for introducing Lester to your other new friends!                                                 –Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN

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