In the 1990s, Berna Huebner was struggling to communicate with her mother, the painter Hilda Gorenstein, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “I asked, ‘Mom, do you want to paint?’” says Huebner, who heads a Chicago charitable foundation. “And her eyes opened up and she said, ‘Yes, I remember better when I paint.’” Gorenstein, a marine artist who had once painted murals at a 1933–1934 Chicago World’s Fair, “wasn’t able to focus at all,” remembers Huebner. “I thought it was her hearing. I called her doctor, and without even blinking he said, ‘Why don't you call her old school and get some students to paint with her?’” Gorenstein subsequently began to paint with a handful of students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her alma mater. After working with a student for several weeks she began to paint again. “It struck a chord,” adds Huebner.
Fast forward to 1999, and Huebner founded the charitable Hilgos Foundation to provide grants for art students to work with Alzheimer’s patients. A decade later, a documentary, I Remember Better When I Paint, co-directed by Huebner, shows the positive effects of art and other creative therapies on Alzheimer’s patients. It has now screened internationally and been broadcast on public television. “There are more and more people working with art and Alzheimer’s,” says Huebner. One reason is the increasing body of research supporting art’s transformative effects on those suffering from the disease.
A 2016 study by Swedish researchers Boo Johansson and Emelie Miller found that people with Alzheimer’s have a preserved capability to paint, and that painting can be used as “an appreciated and beneficial activity” for people with Alzheimer’s. Another paper last year in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that recreation including art therapy can potentially “improve cognitive function, ability of daily living and behavioral and psychological symptoms of elders with dementia.”