Alzheimer’s and art: Neurologist gains insights from father’s journey

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Alzheimer’s disease can catch a person between the shifting planes of mind and memory, cutting them off from the outside world.
Expressive art forms can help families and communities build a bridge – even if it’s a temporary one, said Tuscaloosa, Ala., neurologist Dr. Daniel Potts, who became an advocate for Alzheimer’s patients and their families after his experiences with his father.
“It promotes emotional well-being for patients and their caregivers,” Potts said. “There’s something about the art that harnesses another part of the brain.”
Potts shared the story of his father, Lester Potts, and his insights on the value of expressive art for people with dementia in a presentation at North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo.
Expressive arts – drawing, painting, music, dancing, drama and storytelling – validate the person in the present, it helps them pull their life stories into the present.
“The pilot light is still on,” Potts said, and there’s someone still inside the mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s.
The brain actually sprouts new connections in people participating in artistic activities, even older people, Potts said.
“A rich, stimulating environment is so important for all of us, lifelong,” he said.
Many day programs incorporate the arts into their programs, but it’s accessible to people who are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s at home, Potts said.
Brenda Johnson, who serves as the facilitator for the Alzheimer’s support group in West Point said she was encouraged by Potts’ presentation.
“It makes you realize there’s untouched territory,” said Johnson, who plans to try using water colors with her mom, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago.
Personal journey
It was his father’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease that gave Potts a new perspective.
“It has changed my life and it’s given me a passion for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers,” Potts said.
Lester Potts, whose family has roots in the Carolina community of Itawamba County, grew up primarily around his father’s sawmill and the men who ran it near Aliceville, Ala. He was a very industrious man, active in his community. He built birdhouses, but wouldn’t have considered himself artistic and wasn’t interested in art galleries.
“All of his hobbies were work,” Daniel Potts said.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s started to show in 1999, but Potts wasn’t diagnosed until 2002.
“I had failed to identify the early signs or I was in denial,” Potts said.
As his world contracted and he lost the ability to do things like hammer a nail, untangle Christmas lights and communicate clearly, Lester Potts became apathetic and depressed.
At a faith-based Alzheimer’s day program, he was introduced to water colors, and it made a huge difference for him. His ability with water colors amazed his family; the elder Potts had no history of art work or even art appreciation.
“He created this after he couldn’t clean himself up,” Daniel Potts said, as he showed slides of colorful water colors . Motifs from his childhood – the double-handled saw blade, the tall lace-up shoes his father wore, old friends – would show up in his art work. “It gave him back his pride.”
At first, he started painting objects in front of him or scenes from magazines. Later, he created abstract pictures from his mind.
“Dad was going rapidly down,” Potts said. “I think it helped stabilize him for two years.”
Lester Potts died in 2007, but his art has a lingering legacy for his son.
“Alzheimer’s begins to peel away the social facade, what the world knows about the person,” Potts said. “It can reveal a deeper core.”

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