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With crayons, brushes, an escape from Alzheimer's

By Faith H. Robinson, CNN

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Easing Alzheimer's with art
  • Arts 4 Alzheimer's program founded to provide outlet for patients, caregivers
  • An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease
  • Number could be as high as 13.4 million by 2050, CDC projects

(CNN) -- Every Friday morning, students walk into an art class in Atlanta, Georgia. Some look dazed, uncertain in their environment, as if it's vaguely familiar but they can't fully recognize where they are -- until they sit down and begin to draw.

The moment their brushes hit the paper, their faces light up. Using bright colors -- yellows, oranges, greens, purples -- they begin to transfer the images from their minds. Sometimes they paint what they want and sometimes they draw the highlighted centerpiece of the day. One week it's vegetables, another week it's hats. As their artworks progress, they look happy, smiling and glancing at their teachers for approval. They're not the only ones who are pleased.

Tania Becker, president of the board of the Spruill Center in Atlanta, developed the Arts 4 Alzheimer's program with the help of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Alzheimer's Association. This program helps Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers escape the disease, even if only for a few hours.

"One of the ways to get to people with Alzheimer's is to engage them through art, because art is so creative," says Becker. "It's the one thing, of course, you learn as a child, so those memories are still there and we can get into their memory bank through art. It's just amazing to see how this works."

An estimated 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The number could be as high as 13.4 million by 2050, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects. There is no cure.

...We can get into their memory bank through art. It's just amazing to see how this works.
--Tania Becker

As the world waits for a cure, Becker and her volunteers are reaching their students in a creative way. The class cuts through the isolation Alzheimer's patients can experience and gives them a chance to express emotion through their art.

Bill and Carole Bates benefit from Arts 4 Alzheimer's. They have been happily married since they were teenagers. After 57 years, they remain resilient partners.

After they learned Carole had Alzheimer's, Bill wanted to read and learn everything he could about the disease. Then one day, he picked up the Spruill Center newsletter and found a class that he thought might help Carole: Arts 4 Alzheimer's.

"I immediately wanted to become a part of it," Bill says.

So they did. Every week Bill and Carole come to the class and sit down with others who share an understanding and circumstance. Instead of falling victim to this disease, people are celebrating their lives through their art.

Bill sometimes sits in the corner reading his newspaper. Every now and then Carole will gently grab her husband's hand and look up at him with love and generosity. This class brings people away from the isolation they may experience and gives them a chance to be expressive through their art.

Carole loved the class so much, she asked her husband to take her to the Spruill Center on a day when class wasn't in session just to be certain she wouldn't miss.

In 2009, almost 11 million family members and friends provided unpaid care for a person with Alzheimer's and other dementias; this resulted in an estimated 12.5 billion hours of care, according to the Alzheimer's Association. This disease takes both victims and caregivers away from their lives and memories.

"One of the things about people with Alzheimer's is that they have no yesterday and they have no tomorrow," says Becker. "All they have is the now. So what we give them is a very special now here with their art."