Art has the potential to bring new possibilities to patients with dementia

……….. and perhaps much more.

The creative arts are perhaps the strongest means of communication — building bridges that transcend language or speech; causing us to think, inspiring us with beauty or touching our hearts with love. So it is not surprising to find that the creative arts can cross the divide of how we traditionally view those who suffer from various forms of dementia.

In 2012, health and museum experts came together at the Phillips Collection Gallery in Washington, D.C., with a project called Creative Aging. The project was developed to explore how art could build bridges to those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The results were startling. But even more remarkable, the project revealed the healing effect of art — to some degree mending mental processes that disease and/or years had diminished…..

In 2010, the Hilgos Foundation — a non-profit society that supports many forms of artistic creation with people who have different forms of dementia — released a documentary that explores the connections between art and Alzheimer’s. In the movie I Remember Better When I Paint, specialists in the field of dementia diseases are interviewed, and highlights the life of Hilda Gorenstein (also known as Hilgos). Gorenstein, who was born in Montreal in 1905, became a noted American painter. In her later years she developed Alzheimer’s, but found a restored quality of life through her painting. In the documentary, Tony Jones, chancellor of the School of Art Institute in Chicago, states: “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 in Chicago, agrees, adding that “the creative arts bypass the limitation and simply go to the strengths. … People still have their imaginations intact all the way.”

This reminds me of a dear friend, English sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos. Born at the same time as Gorenstein, she did not suffer from dementia, but was very sensitive to the healing possibilities of art for both artist and audience. She once remarked to me: “The world needs beauty and I intend to give it to them.” She worked tirelessly her whole life to fulfil that mission of bringing beauty to humanity, and she achieved it in no small manner. She understood something that was very important: Beauty has, at its roots, a spiritual origin. Perhaps it is this spiritual origin that gives it its healing qualities as well.

Nineteenth-century thinker and healer Mary Baker Eddy understood the healing value of beauty and its spiritual essence. Additionally, through her healing work, she saw through the limits of the human mind to the origin of consciousness in a much wider and more expansive spiritual context. She wrote: Beauty is a thing of life, which dwells forever in the eternal Mind [God] and reflects the charms of His goodness in expression, form, outline and colour (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures).

Perhaps considering Eddy’s expansive view of beauty and consciousness, we may open doors to greater healing possibilities than previously contemplated regarding memory and communication. There is so much that we have yet to learn about the origin of consciousness, and its impact on health. And new perspectives are being discovered every day.

The inspiring story of Hilda Gorenstein, who discovered that she had not lost her capacity to express beauty, and who reconnected with her ability to express it through art, can serve as a reminder that beauty has a deeply healing effect in our lives. When we consciously cultivate a sense of spiritual beauty for others as well as ourselves, we are reminded who we are. That in turn helps us to remember who others are as well.

* This article was published in the TImes Colonist newspaper Saturday February 23