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Dowling: Memory Quilts

09/02/10 5:55PM By Leora Dowling
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(HOST) Commentator and Shelburne Museum guide Leora Dowling has a newfound appreciation for a traditional art form, and a new perspective on a dread disease.

(DOWLING) When a friend who had recently visited Shelburne Museum told me how moved she was by the exhibit Alzheimer’s: Forgetting Piece by Piece, I had to agree with her.

The show, a collection of contemporary quilts and media, is as beautiful as it is powerful, and it’s one of the museum’s great gifts to Vermonters this year.

The show features 45 quilts made by caregivers, family members and friends of Alzheimer’s patients.  Many reflect the life of one particular patient, while others embrace all patients or celebrate all caregivers.  Each serves as a reminder of how this disease affects all aspects of people’s lives.   A recurring motif is that of a puzzle piece, since with Alzheimer’s, pieces of our memories, gathered over the period of a long life disappear one by one, leaving much that is unrecognizable.

The exhibition also has two Story Corps listening stations with stories collected across America and right here in Vermont in collaboration with VPR.  Hearing the voices, and yes the laughter, of patients and caregivers, takes away some of the sting - as does the video by Memory Bridge that accompanies the show.

Watching the video, I learned that making a meaningful connection with an Alzheimer’s patient can happen at virtually any stage of the disease.  It shows how the caregiver can use voice, touch and song to go with the flow and respond to the patient in the moment. Being fully present and remaining flexible lessen the feelings of frustration, anger, powerlessness, and sorrow that can overwhelm a caregiver. These moments help the patient too.  They reconnect, if only in a very small way, with the people they love and the world in which they still live.

It’s been fascinating to discreetly and respectfully watch visitors approach the show.  Some hurry away while others find themselves lingering for hours.  A chatty group will invariably become quiet. People of all ages cry.  Strangers reach out to comfort each other. Some even share their stories with me and the other guides. We are honored to listen.  And honored to be able to be in that room, which - as corny as it sounds - feels like a sacred space.

I must confess that after a day spent with the exhibit I always feel a bit emotionally raw.  But I don’t find the "Alzheimer’s: Forgetting Piece by Piece" at all depressing.  True, the artists’ statements tell stories of heartbreak and loss, but the colorful quilts reflect the entire lifespan of the patient, not just the sad coda.  And I love it that this exhibit allows us here in Vermont to participate in remembering and celebrating lives spent in places like Illinois and New Mexico. It reminds me that there are still values that transcend time, place, and even Alzheimer’s.

I also find it hopeful that artists continue to turn the inevitable tragedy and suffering of life into an impetus to explore and create great and lasting beauty.

(TAG)  You can find more commentaries by Leora Dowling at VPR-dot-net.  Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece By Piece can be seen at Shelburne Museum until October 24th. 
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