Actress Rita Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzhemier’s in 1981 at the age of 63. Her behaviour was said to have been extremely demanding and difficult. She suffered from anxiety, aggression and agitation all common to Alzheimer’s but as the disease progressed she found solace in painting.
Her experience could be the key to understanding how to give support to those suffering from Alzheimer’s and John Zeisel is the founder of a new programme which incorporates the art’s into caring for people with Alzheimer’s in the United States.
“What the scientific research tells us is that Alzheimer’s attacks the part of the brain that handles what we call logic — the executive function that copes with handling complex situations. Taking a photograph, for instance: you have to find the camera, slot in the memory chip, work out where the shutter button is and so on . . .
“But what’s not damaged is your appreciation of a beautiful picture. The part of the brain that deals with emotions is shaken up by Alzheimer’s but it’s not damaged in the same way. In fact, emotional response seems to be heightened, not lessened.”
The scheme pioneered by Ziesel is called Hearthstone and looks after a group of seven homes and 220 people. He believes that they can be reached through the art’s and sets up regular outings to galleries alongside reading circles and film clubs and encouragement to take up painting and other artistic hobbies.
Zeisel says that people with Alzheimer’s need to stay useful so one of the first steps that Hearthstone takes us to look for an activity which seems to get a response from a resident. Try to revive old hobbies such as gardening and if this doesn’t work attempt something new.
After this you need to help build up a routine around the activity. George, a former teacher, arrived at Hearthstone anxious and aggressive and, on the assumption that he would like books, was taken to the library. He now runs a residents’ book circle at 10 o’clock each morning. Zeisel says this is a way to encourage residents to get up in the morning. If George knows the book club needs him then he has a meaningful role.