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Mothering Our Mothers with Dementia

Berna Huebner helped her mother reclaim her identity as the artist, Hilgos.

by Hilgos

When Berna Huebner was told about her mother, “The lights are out,” she sought help in the world of art. Huebner, who is herself a mother, says: “This unfortunately is not a story about a miraculous cure – rather it is a tale of transformation.” Depicted in a documentary she created I Remember Better When I Paint, narrated by Olivia de Havilland the story gives hope to children whose mothers live in a world in which their memories have been hijacked by a debilitating disease.

Huebner said to me: “As anyone will tell you, Alzheimer’s is an aggressive and difficult disease. My mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s was no exception. As the disease tightened its grip she would often become agitated and distant. And then finally, she stopped speaking altogether.”

Hope through her art

Huebner recalled: “I struggled to find a way to reach her. Doctors and nurses were pessimistic about my chances of accessing my mother’s memory and ultimately communicating with her, a woman who had once been full of life and light; a woman who valued her work and independence.”

by Hilgos

She said: “For 75 years, my mother used oil, acrylic and watercolor to bring life to her marine paintings. Under the androgynous working name ‘Hilgos’ she accumulated a vast body of work. Her collection, numbers in the thousands.”

When everyone was giving up on the worsening dementia of Huebner’s mother, painter Hilda Goldblatt Gorenstein, she was given hope by her mother’s psychiatrist. He suggested that Huebner contact her mother's former art school, the Art Institute of Chicago.

Huebner recalls: “When I asked my mother if she would like to paint again, her eyes suddenly sparkled, and she answered, ‘Yes, I remember better when I paint.’ ”

As such, Huebner hired trained art students, brought them into the nursing home to work with her mother. She later created a documentary film depicting the dramatic way her mother reclaimed some of her identity as an artist and as a person.

Through Huebner’s devotion and those of the student-teachers, who sometimes had to pick up a brush and put it in the artist’s hand when she resisted, mother and daughter found ways to express love through art.

At one time when her mother began to balk at painting, the student-teacher started to leave. But her mother beckoned back and the student recalled that she actually said the words: “I’ve never had anything like this. Let’s just keep going.”

From being a person who had become non-communicative in the nursing home, through painting she came alive and began creating hundreds of designs.

The Hilgos Foundation

Berna Huebner now directs the Center for the Study of International Communications, and founded the Chicago-based Hilgos Foundation, which fosters artistic creativity for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. She also serves on the Alzheimer's Board at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Choices in the best interest of...

Can those with dementia make their own choices? Physicians seem to agree that this must be balanced by “perceived” choice as well as “in the best interest of.” And oftentimes even the best of us need a little push.

On days when the artist resisted, rather than give up and say, “It’s her choice if she doesn’t want to paint,” the students persevered and gently encouraged her. In doing so they were able to help an artist return to her passion.

Copyright 2012 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved

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