Advocacy in Action: "Painting in Twilight: An Artist's Escape from Alzheimer's Disease"

January 14, 2011

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By Daniel C. Potts, MD

Cognitive Dynamics Foundation is a new Alabama-based non-profit foundation founded by 2008 Palatucci Advocate of the Year Daniel C. Potts, MD. The Foundation sponsored a gala art event in Beverly Hills, Calif., in collaboration with fellow PALF Advisor Meril Platzer, MD, internationally renowned art appraiser and gallery owner in Beverly Hills, David W. Streets, and the American Academy of Neurology. Dr. Potts shares the story of the gala and his father's art in this article. —Glenn Finney, MD, AAN.com Advocacy Editor

Lester Potts, deceased Alzheimer's patient and my father, was transformed from a rural Alabama saw miller to an acclaimed watercolor artist after his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, having never painted previously. Over a four-year period, my father created more than 100 original watercolors while attending Caring Days, a dementia daycare center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

A representative sample of my father's art was displayed at the David Streets Galleries in Beverly Hills on November 5, 2010, before a crowd of around 200 celebrities, philanthropists and art aficionados. Guests included Spago restaurant owner Barbara Lazaroff, new host of "Entertainment Tonight" and "Hollywood Insider" Lara Spencer, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, producer Glen Larson, author Diane Lander-Simon, and author/reporter for Celebrity Society Magazine Fauna Hodel.

The event was designed to raise awareness for Alzheimer's disease, including the plight of patients and caregivers, and highlight the power of expressive arts therapies to improve quality of life and enhance human dignity in people with dementia.


"Blue-green Collage": Lester Potts, late-stage Alzheimer's disease (note images from Lester's life: a saw, his father's hat and shoe, trees, leaves, a birdhouse, rocks, and a cross)

Meril Platzer, MD, a well-known Los Angeles region neurologist and dementia specialist, initially thought of holding this event. We met at the 2008 Donald Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum (PALF), which we both attended as advocates and began collaborating.

I hope that this event and the ensuing exposure will garner support for our initiatives such as "Art to Life," a partnership between Cognitive Dynamics and the University of Alabama Honors College. In this program, which began this month, the expressive arts therapies will be used to tease out the life stories of underprivileged dementia patients in Alabama's impoverished "Blackbelt" region.

The resulting life stories will be documented digitally, preserved as therapy for the patients, keepsakes for the families, and as national treasures. The project will also generate important research involving multi-generational burden of care, caregiver resources, and definable benefits of the expressive arts therapies.

The Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum helped me take my advocacy ideas to the next level. When I attended PALF as an advocate in 2008, my father had just died. I was left with his incredible art and a passion to honor him and other Alzheimer's patients and caregivers by telling his story and doing everything I could to enhance quality of life and promote dignity.

PALF training gave me the tools needed to turn my dreams into action, to advocate effectively at both the local and national levels. I will never forget the looks on the faces of those who attended the show.

The power of Dad's art and story never cease to amaze me. His creativity, even extending into late-stage Alzheimer's disease, proves that these individuals retain the ability to communicate and share their life stories even as language fails them. The expressive arts provide a means of communication, giving validation to their lives and meaning to their present existence.


Christmas 2006: Lester, Ethelda, and Daniel Potts