Documentary by a Local Filmmaker Explains How Art Therapy Can Relieve Dementia

Loved ones with severe memory loss often retreat to inner worlds.

A recent international documentary, “I Remember Better When I Paint,” co-directed by Berna Huebner of Highland Park, shows how art therapy can bring them back.

The film is based, in part, on personal experience. Huebner’s mother, Hilda Gorenstein, also known as Hilgos, was an accomplished artist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1990s. As her condition worsened, she became increasingly withdrawn and forlorn.

One day Huebner asked her mother if she would like to paint again. Gorenstein’s face brightened. “Yes, I remember better when I paint,” she said.

Huebner recruited several students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Gorenstein’s alma mater, to spend time with her and encourage her brushstrokes. The artist completed 200 more paintings before she died in 1998.

“Painting helped my mother reconnect to life,” Huebner says. “It gave her more identity and dignity and helped her regain some of her communication skills.”

Former Chicagoan and geriatric psychiatrist Lawrence Lazarus, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico and private practitioner in Santa Fe, N.M., explains how it works: “Skills and memories from the past tend to be comparatively preserved, as opposed to new information or recent memories. If someone who has a background in art or music can recreate some of those experiences, they can rekindle the pleasure they may have gotten from similar works in the past. They feel a sense of mastery and control.”

Huebner has become an advocate of art therapy for people with dementia. She established the Hilgos Foundation, in memory of her mother, to fund SAIC students who design such projects. She worked on the documentary, a 10-year passion, to build awareness and inspire more creative arts programming at care facilities, schools and arts centers worldwide.

“Berna is pioneering the use of creative arts to unlock communication that has been closed off,” says SAIC Chancellor Tony Jones. “The film is a message of hope.”

The hour-long film is co-directed by French filmmaker Eric Ellena and narrated by Olivia de Havilland. It features footage of Gorenstein and other patients in North America and Europe engaging in artistic expression, as well as interviews with experts from the medical and arts communities. Among them are Lazarus, Jones and Yasmin Aga Khan, president of Alzheimer’s Disease International and daughter of Rita Hayworth, who had the disease.

The film has been shown on public television stations and at medical meetings. It also is available for sale.

“We hope the film becomes an educational tool for giving people who have this disease a better quality of life,” says Huebner.

Editor's note: You can buy "I Remember Better When I Paint" through Amazon.com.


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