My Colors Came Alive
By Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN
"The true worth of a (person) is not to be found in (that person) him/herself, but in the colours and textures that come alive in others." - Albert Schweitzer
My motivation to write about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias was my father, Lester, an artist who had Alzheimer’s. A neurologist and only child, I found myself struggling in a dark place in 2002, just after my father’s diagnosis. I felt like a restrained bystander bearing witness to a crime I could do nothing about.
As strange as it may seem, caregiving skills were not taught in medical school. Thorough knowledge of the pathology and clinical manifestations of Alzheimer’s was not helping in the day to day challenges being faced mainly by my mother, Dad’s primary caregiver. I felt I didn’t know enough to help.
Seeking the best opportunities possible to support Dad, we enrolled him in a wonderful adult daycare center, Caring Days in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and immediately Dad’s affect brightened and behavior and interaction skills improved. This was largely due to the validating, dignifying care he received there.
Then came the art. A volunteer artist with a knack for sharing his gift came to work with the clients, and Dad showed a previously unknown talent for artistic expression. Over four years, he painted 100 original watercolors. His creativity was transformative not only for him, but for all those around him. It seemed the spirit of the very one with the disease was lifting the spirits of all of us.
I remember waking in the early morning hours of January 1, 2006 with a poem in my head. Writing it feverishly, I then read what seemed unfamiliar words. Yet I recognized its beauty, and shared it with others. Thus, began my exploration of a newly found gift. This gifting had been kindled by Dad’s art, causing colors and textures to “come alive in others," as Dr. Schweitzer describes.
Writing helped me immensely as Dad’s condition progressed, and seemed to give meaning to what was happening. It also provided a source of inspiration and hope for others in similar circumstances, and has continued to do so over the years. I truly feel that writing has made be a better physician, one with more empathy and compassion. I am a better listener, because I have learned to listen to the deepest parts of myself.
In my writing, I often attempt to place myself in the shoes of the person with dementia and speak in what I perceive to be their voice. While I know I cannot begin to understand what it must be like, I feel duty-bound to try, and to give voice to those who perhaps are being silenced by the disease.
Mostly what I feel when I write is gratitude for the opportunity we were given to see Dad’s spirit soar because someone cared enough to believe that he was still present, that his soul still sang despite the disease. Having heard the song, I want to sing it so that others may hear, too.
About the Author
Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN is a neurologist, author, educator and champion of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their caregivers. Currently Attending Neurologist at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Potts is a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, and was chosen by the AAN as its 2008 Advocate of the Year for his work promoting the arts and storytelling to enhance quality of life in those with dementia. He has also been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver, and blogs monthly on her website. A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer's Caregiver, written by Dr. Potts and his wife, Ellen W. Potts, MBA is recommended as a resource by the AAN, the Alzheimer's Association, and Maria Shriver. Ms. Shriver wrote the Foreword of his latest book, Finding Joy in Alzheimer's, which he co-authored with caregiving expert, Marie Marley, PhD. Additionally, Dr. Potts recently collaborated with Dr. Richard Morgan on Treasure for Alzheimer’s: Reflecting on experiences with the art of Lester E. Potts, Jr.
A clinical faculty member at the University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences and the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, Dr. Potts also holds appointments in the Honors College and the Alabama Research Institute on Aging. In 2016, he was chosen by the University of Alabama Medical Alumni Association as a recipient of the Martha Myers Role Model Award, honoring physician alumni whose lives epitomize the ideal of service to their communities. Dr. Potts is co-convener and medical advisor of the ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s Network, and is Editor-in Chief of Seasons of Caring, a multi-faith collection of meditations for dementia caregivers. Potts serves on the boards of the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Alzheimer's of Central Alabama. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.