The first attempt to portray Alzheimer's disease in art on the walls of a Halifax hospital waiting room two years ago proved to be too much for the people it was supposed to help.
The painting Ghost, by artist Jennifer Hiscox, shows a young girl looking at a blackened and scraped image of her father. When it went up on the walls of a clinic at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, it alarmed patients and their families.
"When we put it up in the clinic area, it was obvious that it was too powerful for people, it overwhelmed them," Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, a consultant physician at the hospital's Centre for the Health Care of the Elderly, said.
The painting, which Hiscox says depicts her childhood view of her father suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, was moved to another hallway. In its new location it carried a touching description by Hiscox of how she struggled to portray her father from a black-and-white photo taken when she was about three years old.
"This dark overpainting and scraping of the canvas is a violence done to my father's image, as the disease did to his person," she wrote. "It partially erases him, while also electrifying him, and creates an image that is elusive and yet glowing and strangely precise and particular."
Despite the early setback, Rockwood was determined to push forward a unique program to use art works to instill more humanity into the clinical world of medicine. With guidance from Hiscox and officials at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery, the hospital began replacing bland posters and notices on its walls with art.
Hiscox, who began her career in Halifax and recently moved to rural New Brunswick, was asked to produce paintings depicting the work of doctors in caring for the elderly. When Rockwood worked up a diagnosis of a patient, Hiscox would quietly sit in on the interview, formulating ideas for paintings.
The centre recently decided to formalize the program, creating the first artist-in-residence post in a Canadian hospital.
Among Hiscox's paintings now on display at the hospital include the haunting Ghost, The Search for the Right Hemisphere -- a silhouette of a human brain -- and a recently unveiled work called Dancing Inside, showing an elderly woman playing the piano.
Rockwood said the paintings describe what happens in the clinic -- the disorder and confusion of Alzheimer's patients, for instance, and the attempts by their families and the medical staff to come to grips with that and other conditions.
"A lot of people come to Alzheimer's from a very naive point of view and [the paintings]broaden their experience," he said. "It shows that there is something here to portray that validates the emotional intensity of their lives."
He said patients and their families relate to paintings, seeing some of their own experiences even in the dark and chaotic images of some of the work.
"A painting such as Ghost is so powerful, and people do engage with it, especially when they read the description and unpack the code. I've seen people who were visibly not interested in this moved to tears by it. We wanted to take advantage of that. This is like nothing else we have ever done," he said.
The art works are also valuable teaching tools, especially for young residents who are more interested in making clinical diagnoses than in making social contacts with elderly patients.
"You need to have some way of engaging them in the humanity of what is going on and to be alert to the emotional content of the experience without reacting to it in a way that will emotionally impair what they need to do," said Rockwood, who is also a professor of geriatric medicine at Dalhousie University.
For Hiscox, her two years at the hospital listening to the stories of Alzheimer's patients helped her understand what her father suffered.
"My father had Alzheimer's when I was very young, but I don't think I let myself feel the sadness until after he was dead. It was just too much. I started painting and it was painful but cleansing," the soft-spoken artist said.
Some of her abstract work shows the chaos and confusion -- and flashes of brilliance -- that are part of the Alzheimer's experience. Hiscox believes that being able to publicly show the often-disturbing aspects of Alzheimer's is a step forward.
Medical staff dealing with the disease "have really come a long way," she said. "Not long ago, nobody knew what was wrong with my father and we all felt terribly guilty, we had this family secret."
She painted Dancing Inside after encountering a young woman suffering from Alzheimer's.
"She came to the appointment in running shoes and was very passionate about hiking," Hiscox said. "I put my interpretation of that into painting and I thought of a woman playing the piano and how concentrated she was in doing something she loved."
A committee representing the artistic and medical communities is now searching for an artist with similar passion to spend a year creating works of art relating to Alzheimer's and other memory disorders. Doctors at the hospital have contributed $12,000 toward the artist-in-residence program, which will require the artist to spend time learning about the elderly and about Alzheimer's disease. At the end of the year, the artist will be expected to produce several pieces that may be purchased by the hospital for display.
Rockwood said the program could be expanded to include the artist-in-residence helping patients suffering from Alzheimer's and other memory disorders to create their own art. But right now, patients and families are eager to see what artistic works can be created out of their own often painful and emotionally charged experiences.
"What we have heard back so far has been very positive. Relatives [of Alzheimer's patients]are saying, 'We're glad you think there is enough in our experiences to portray it,' " Rockwood said.