Finding Art In Alzheimer's Stories

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David Greenberger's new CD, Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time is inspired by the stories of Alzheimer's sufferers in nursing homes. hide caption

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David Greenberger (left) and Paul Cebar. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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David Greenberger (left) and Paul Cebar.

Courtesy of the artist

Thirty years ago, David Greenberger was just out of art school when he took a job at a nursing home. He soon switched from painting on canvas to putting the words of elderly people into stories and publishing them in his Duplex Planet magazines — and eventually online and on CDs. He tells their stories using his own voice and sets his new stories to music.

In Milwaukee, Greenberger met people with Alzheimer's and other forms of memory loss — including a woman in his piece "No Rooms Here."

"That woman took quite a shine to me," Greenberger says. "At some point I realized she wasn't really listening to anything I was saying. She was just sort of glad a man was visiting. I was saying things and trying to get some kind of response from her, and she would nod and chuckle and then look up and just say, 'You have beautiful eyes. And thank you, thank you.' And then we went on. Then it sort of graduated to, 'You have wonderful lips.' And that went finally to 'very kissable lips.' "

"I couldn't come up with music for that," adds guitarist Paul Cebar, who collaborated on the music. "David doesn't know his immense personal magnetism."

The work was supported by the Center on Aging and Community at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

"That's what a conversation is," says Anne Basting, who runs the center. "You're trying to reach out to the world around you and the people around you, and that never goes away."

"One of the things I found to be true through this whole project," Greenberger says, "was that no matter how profound the memory loss was, everybody who agreed to sit with me and talk still possessed something of the dynamic of how a conversation works. I talk, you talk. We go back and forth. Even if the content of what they were saying had nothing to do with what I was saying, there was still the rhythm of a conversation that was so basic to them."

Alzheimer's is a dreaded disease, but Basting says Greenberger found the normal underpinnings in people with memory loss.

"He ennobles the person that he's talking with and puts them in a position of power," Basting explains. "One way I've used to describe it is that he ends up kind of like a jester in a relationship to a king."

Greenberger and Cebar matched the words to music, or sometimes the music shaped the words.

"I felt like, this guy's talking about being in a band, so let's give him a band," Greenberger says about a character in the song "A King In Milwaukee."

"I don't know that he really was. But I felt like he says so, so that's what we're talking about. If it's real to him, it's real to me," he says.

"There were things that would happen," Greenberger continues, "where I'd try a text with something, and the musical character would bring out an aspect to the narrative that I hadn't really thought about. Maybe it was triumphant. It's not sad, it's triumphant."

Greenberger met one man whose Alzheimer's was getting worse. Yet the man was hopeful about his own future. He was enrolled in a day program designed to slow memory loss. The story became the basis for the song "Satisfied":

I felt like I was really getting toward Alzheimer's. I was hoping it wasn't Alzheimer's. But I was finding myself repeating myself very often, just in a normal conversation. And I felt like I'd better do something to help with my memory. My daughter is the one that came up with this program here.
This was actually not too long ago. And I thought it was quite interesting and decided to register and keep on coming back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And you know what, it has helped me. Since I've been coming here, I've not noticed any further deterioration of my memory. Nothing I can detect, anyway. I'm satisfied.

"The narrative in this," Greenberger explains, "is this guy sort of talking about how he's becoming a little forgetful and he's become aware of that, but he's OK with it. So I said ... I want the curtains to open, and I want there to be like a bandstand of people dressed up playing saxophones, in this kind of just playing to the heavens, kind of."

Cebar and Greenberger performed the pieces recently in Milwaukee and now hope to take them on the road.

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