Ask Jean Raichle about her paintings, and she’ll probably deny that she paints at all.
“What? A painter!” she might say.
Ask again in a few moments and she might concede an inch: “Oh, I think if I had nothing to do, I could sit down and fiddle around, but it’s not my main thing.”
Ask her while she’s painting and her answer might be no different, says her daughter, Marilyn Raichle.
“My mother is capable of looking at someone while she’s painting and saying, ‘I don’t do this,’” said Marilyn. “Her resistance is total.”
For 94-year-old Jean, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, the world unfolds in 3-second increments. After 3 seconds pass, Jean forgets what just happened and the day starts anew.
“Every moment is just delightful. Every moment is lived for the first time,” said Marilyn. “But there is a through line. Mother is a happy person.”
‘She’s still the same person’
Some days, Jean recognizes her daughter. Other times, she’s not so sure. At first, this proved heartbreaking for Marilyn.
“I had this expectation that Mother looked forward to my visits. Then I realized I am really overestimating my importance in Mother’s new life,” she said. “You want your mother sometimes. But that was a turning point. I realized [I had to] let go of that, because it’s different now. And if you keep wanting her to be what she used to be, you’re going to be sad.”
The point, Marilyn realized, isn’t to try to recreate the past, but to reimagine the relationship. She now tries to join her mother in her world and see its beauty.
“If I go to where she is, instead of expecting her to come to where she used to be or where I am, everybody is much happier,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s like to live in real-time, but when I’m with Mother, I am living in real-time. And it’s really peaceful. It’s really nice. You let go of any problems. You let go of any expectations.”
Once Marilyn let go, she realized so much of her mother is still present.
“Mother before [Alzheimer’s was] positive, purposeful, a joiner, a doer. And Mother now is the same thing, although muted by a hundredfold. She’s still the same person. And she has a wonderful curiosity about life,” she said.
‘A window into her mind’
Living with Alzheimer’s can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be only about atrophy, says Marilyn. And her mother is living proof.
Jean began painting at 89, after she began forgetting. After her husband’s death, her children enrolled her in a class at her assisted-living facility, not knowing they were in for a huge surprise.
“We looked at her painting and said, ‘Oh, my God! These are good!’” said Marilyn. “It’s a side of Mother that we’d never seen.”
At first, Jean painted literal still life pieces. Then her paintings took a drastic turn, bearing little resemblance to the models.
Marilyn remembers watching her mother paint a red poinsettia in a red vase.
“And what she painted looked like Tweedle Dum from Alice in Wonderland in yellow and blue,” she said.
Then there’s Marilyn’s favorite painting: “a big orange figure that looks, to me, like a green meanie from the Yellow Submarine except it’s orange.” The piece is Jean’s take on a butternut squash.
These days, Jean mostly paints symmetrical mirror-image pieces that often have eyes, “but every once in a while, she’ll totally surprise me,” said her daughter. “We never know what to expect but the art is fascinating. They provide a window into her mind, to thoughts and emotions she is unable express any other way.”
Some weeks, Jean forgets she paints and refuses to go to class. To nudge her along, Marilyn visits her every Tuesday before class.
“We sing, we march—Mother loves to march. Mother loves to play the piano. Sometimes we get all of her neighbors in here [in her room] and we sing,” said Marilyn. And when time comes to paint, Marilyn reminds her that she does, in fact, enjoy it.
Only once she has the paintbrush in her hand does Jean seem to remember. Then she starts to hum and let herself free. And what results is a work of art that surprises even the artist herself.
Sharing the lesson
Jean’s children aren’t sure whether her artistic talents lay dormant all these years, or were borne out of her illness. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at University of California San Francisco’s Memory and Aging and Center, has found an emergence of visual creativity in patients with certain forms of dementia.
Whatever the origins of Jean’s talents, Marilyn says her paintings serve as a gateway through which she can share the lesson she herself learned the hard way, and only after losing her father to Alzheimer’s.
“If I knew then what I know now, my experience with my father would have been much more different,” she said. “And yeah, it’s scary—it’s really scary. But it gets better when it gets worse for the person who’s got it, once you finally cross that line.”
To help spread word, Marilyn launched a Kickstarter campaign to feature Jean’s work on notecards and prints, and in a calendar. The artworks themselves are intriguing, but it’s the story behind them that Marilyn hopes will reach others caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.
“Because Alzheimer’s is scary, but Mother’s art isn’t,” she said. “I hope that the art gets shared so people will want to learn about it. Just see this side of this. Realize that it’s not as bad as you think. It’s not good, but it’s not a death sentence.”
Marilyn knows there will come a time when her mother will live in 1-second increments. But whatever comes, she plans to hold dear to her mother by joining her in her new world.
“There’s so much to this—and to her—than is defined by this disease,” she said.
Marilyn Raichle shares stories about her mother on her blog, theartofalzheimers.net.
Filmmakers Charlie Watts and William Thompson put together a short film on Jean Raichle and her art. Watch: