94-Year-Old Seattle Alzheimer's Patient Discovers New Artistic Talent

Mar 6, 2013

Marilyn Raichle (right) with her mother Jean.
Marilyn Raichle (right) with her mother Jean.
Credit Marilyn Raichle

One of the hardest things for families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease is loss -- loss of memory, loss of a loved one's ability to recognize family, and sometimes, loss of the ability to communicate. The changes can be devastating. But one Seattle woman found a way to be part of her mother’s new world.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Jean Raichle goes to art class in her assisted living home on First Hill. Today, there's a cluster of potted flowers on the table. Jean sits down, glances at the flowers and looks at the blank piece of paper in front of her. Then she picks up her brush and gets to work.

We all went, what, Mother can paint? It was a complete shock.

She hums quietly to herself as she paints. Every now and then Jean looks at her neighbor, and then turns her gaze back to the picture. She adds another stroke. In short time, Jean puts down the brush and she’s done.

Jean Raichle is 94 years old, but has only been painting for about five years. Her daughter, Marilyn, signed her up for art class to pass the time. When she saw her mother’s painting from the first class, her reaction was disbelief.

“We all went, 'What, Mother can paint?' It was a complete shock. This was not something we expected. It was this beautiful blue vase with these flowers in it. It was amazing,” said Marilyn.

Credit Jean Raichle

Marilyn says it was amazing for other reasons. Her mother had no memory of creating the picture. She has Alzheimer’s. And up until that day, Jean had never painted in her life.

“Not only that, but it was actively frowned upon as a frivolous waste of time,” Marilyn explains. “These are Scottish Presbyterians who are looking for purposeful activity. So playing the piano was okay, but painting was considered frivolous.”

Nevertheless, Marilyn made sure her mother went to art class every week, even though her mother had no memory of going to class.

Marilyn keeps all of Jean’s artwork. After the second year, she started making calendars with the paintings. Marilyn started giving them to everyone in the family. She says the calendars have become a visual way for the family to stay connected to Jean.

Dementia is a decline of brain activity. It usually affects memory, language, and decision making.  It gets worse over time. Bruce Miller is a neurologist at University of California-San Francisco. He studies dementia and creativity. He says creativity is not usually common in people with dementia. In fact, a majority tend to lose creative impulses early on in the disease. But he has seen a number of people with dementia who do have the opposite effect.

“Our sense is that when you turn off certain circuits in the brain,” he says, “it may increase in others.” Miller says it’s as if the right brain is trying to compensate for the left side. This phenomenon sheds some light on how the disease progresses. It often starts in small parts of the brain. 

If there's permanent loss in one specific circuit, it may allow other circuits to remodel and actually increase their strengths.

“They start off in a few individual parts of the cell and then spread out slowly across the circuit and circuits in the brain are constantly communicating, turning on and off," says Miller. "When one circuit turns on the other turns off.” So if there’s permanent loss in one specific circuit, Miller says, it may allow other circuits to remodel and actually increase their strengths.

There’s still a lot unknown about dementia and the human brain. What’s emerging is that dementia does not affect everyone in the same way. So it’s important, Miller says, for families and for physicians, to look for ways to bring out an individual’s strengths associated with the disease.

For Marilyn Raichle, discovering her mother’s new talent has helped her in many ways. Dementia runs in both sides of the family. Watching her mother makes her less fearful of her own future. 

“If I can be as happy as Mother when my time comes, and believe me, if Alzheimer’s runs in your family, it will come,” she says. “If I can be as happy as Mother, it’s not so bad.”

I realize that you can't get back what's gone. But you can embrace what's there.

Recently Marilyn started a blog about her mother and her art. The blog is called,  Art of Alzheimer’s: How Mother Forgot Nearly Everything and Began to Paint. Marilyn says she wants to share her mother’s story. She wants to show that dementia is not always a dark place filled with loss and sadness.

“It’s sadder for the people who are left behind, if you want to use that word,” she says, “but I think what’s so important for those of us who have those people moving into this chapter, they’re not leaving us. They’re still here.”

Marilyn is excited about her mother’s new talents. But when asked whether there have been times she misses the mother she grew up with, she hesitates.

“I can’t talk about it because I’ll cry. Sometimes you just want your mommy. But I realize that you can’t get back what’s gone. But you can embrace what’s there.” Marilyn adds, the fact is, Jean is still her mother.

Marilyn has been spending more time with Jean.  She says being with her teaches her to relax. And every week she looks forward to seeing a new picture from her mother.