Langley woman’s art gives her a voice despite Alzheimer’s disease

Skagit Valley Herald
Dec 25 2008

Sarah and Ivan in their studioLANGLEY — Sarah Wallace, 77, slowly scratches her colored pencil along a line drawn on thick paper.

Geometric designs cover the paper — possibly her only meaningful communication with the outside world. That’s what her husband, Ivan Neaigus, believes. Wallace is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"She can't express feelings, even though she might be feeling stuff inside," said Neaigus, 70. "That’s why the artwork is interesting, because I feel by her doing it, it’s connecting something internally with a way to express it."

Neaigus is Wallace's sole caregiver, but that wasn't always so. The couple used to host drawing classes in their home. Sketches of nudes line the walls behind the washing machine.

As Wallace slowly lost the connection with her mind, her artwork became less focused, and she depended on Neaigus more than ever.

"You have to take care of things that you were not quite ready for. In a way it’s harder for the caregiver, particularly I think, with a spouse situation," he said.

"With a parent-child situation you almost expect it, but with a spouse situation, particularly if you have some history, it just takes on a different dimension when you start caring for someone in such a way."

An estimated 5.2 million people in the United States — 13 percent of those 65 and older — are living with the disease, according to the national Alzheimer’s Association, and about 10 million baby boomers are expected to develop Alzheimer’s in their lifetime. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Before Wallace began suffering from Alzheimer’s about 12 or so years ago, she lived in La Jolla and Malibu, Calif. She painted, photographed and reveled in the world around her as she raised her three daughters. Jars of shells collected from beaches line the shelves of her Langley art studio.

Her watercolor paintings and colored pencil drawings, on display in her and Neaigus’ home and on their Web site, show her passion for the seashore and the tide pools that became her inspiration. Birds soar over a blushing sunset, and the sponges in one piece, "Sea Tree 1" — for which she won first place at Langley’s 1994 Choochokam Festival of the Arts — seem to pop out of the canvas.

Her first husband died in the early 1970s. Wallace and Neaigus met in 1980 while dancing in Santa Monaco, Calif. They moved to Langley in 1984 and married in 1987.

"When we came up here we hardly had any furniture, but we had lots of rocks," he said.

Neaigus transitioned from a corporate job to carving wood and stone. A towering forest of cedar, hemlock and fir surrounds their wooden home. Various sculptures and mosaics are scattered across their 5-acre property.

At first, Neaigus didn’t recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s in his wife, which he says began in 1995 or 1996. The books and bank accounts, which Wallace had maintained meticulously, weren’t being maintained. Wallace was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001.

"It confirmed a lot of things everybody knew," he said. "It was subtle things. In retrospect, I can see it."

Neaigus created a rigid schedule for their lives. Three days a week, Neaigus takes Wallace to South Whidbey Senior Center’s Time Together Adult Day Services Program. Those who attend participate in dancing, art and mental puzzles, said Hestia Laitala, director of the program.

"We do a lot around sharing our stories and pulling forth memories from the past," Laitala said. "People remember how to dance. They remember the words to the songs, and the stories they can tell about their lives."

In November 2006, Neaigus made creating art a part of Wallace’s daily routine.

"(Wallace) is staying engaged in a facet of her life that’s always been there," he said. "Having that structured time to be in the studio is so good."

Starting from a blank page, Wallace created the first of 32 colored pencil works entitled "Transitions." The first piece, full of oranges, purples and reds, outline distinctive shapes. As the series progresses, the artwork becomes more abstract.

"It doesn’t have to be intellectual," Neaigus said. "Once it becomes intellectual it’s a whole different thing."

For many Alzheimer’s patients, creating art serves a basic need to communicate, said Katherine Segura, the education and training specialist for the Western and Central Washington chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. She coordinates the Memories in the Making art program, which encourages Alzheimer’s patients to create art as a method of communication.

"As communication skills decrease, the person with dementia experiences frustration and withdraw because they cannot make themselves understood," Segura said. "They are still a person inside with long-term memory and feelings."

In the case of Wallace, Neaigus brings her to the art studio at the same time as part of a daily routine. Segura said that likely provides Wallace a sense of normalcy.

"It’s something that makes her feel good and is important to her," Segura said. "(The routine) continues something that was important to her in her life."

But in Wallace’s recent artwork, as in life, Neaigus now outlines patterns in the blank pages before her. Starting with "Transitions 17," Neaigus started drawing geometric shapes on the pages to help Wallace get started.

Wallace often listens to classical or jazz music when she draws. But these days, Neaigus almost has to guide her hand. Though she doesn’t talk, Neaigus said her mood is pleasant, which he said is reflective of her previous shy and private personality.

The drawings in the "Transitions" series are for sale at their Web site, http://www.art-in-transition.com, as giclée prints. A giclée print is created from a high-resolution scan of the artwork that is printed on high-quality paper with fade-resistant ink. Ten percent of the price, $200, goes toward Alzheimer’s research and another 10 percent is donated to the Time Together program at the senior center.

Kate Martin can be reached at 360-416-2145 or at kmartin@skagitpublishing.com

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