For almost two years I’ve been working with a group of folks who are dealing with Young Onset Alzheimer’s. Once a month the Rush University Medical Center’s Memory Clinic sponsors a group called Without Warning. The group came about because there was a growing number of people experiencing memory issues and receiving Alzheimer’s diagnosis in their late 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Memory loss sucks at any point but for these folks the challenges are unique. They find themselves unable to focus, plagued by confusion and sometimes unaware that it’s even happening… in the midst of family, careers and relationships. They expected to continue making memories for many more years rather than beginning to forget.
I hang out for a couple of hours with a group that is willing to put up with my art-making and materials as a way to facilitate group conversations and record our stories. Mostly I listen and I marvel at these people who’s lives are in constant transition, who may not remember how to get to where they’re going every time they leave their homes, they forget where the dishes go and how to cook and how to related to their partners and children. They are funny and brave and they have amazing, heart-breaking and hilarious stories.
Last week when I was with them I became aware of how one man in particular who has lost his memory’s grip on his personal history has begun to adopt the larger story of his generation as his own. He will talk and relive memories from the sixties that he did not experience first hand but that were the marks of his generation. He can’t remember anymore whether he fought in Vietnam or where he lived or grew up but he’s adopted the broad strokes of that time as a way of describing his experience. My time with them has turned my concept of memory and identity on it’s head.
As these individuals lose their memories they also begin to live into each day, hour by hour, many of them move forward into the unknown with a sense of hope that isn’t simple or easy. This drawing is for these amazing folks that agree to make art with me and let me make drawings to tell their stories and hold their memories. As time passes they will rely on the collective memory of their generations, their families and their friends to keep them grounded and to tether them to their lives. I love them.