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Finding Art In Alzheimer's Stories

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Finding Art In Alzheimer's Stories

Finding Art In Alzheimer's Stories

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

David Greenberger is a storyteller who finds his stories in some unusual places. He goes to nursing homes and anywhere else he can listen to the words of elderly people. Now, he's put their fragmented memories to music and shown that even people with Alzheimer's still have something to say.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has the story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: 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 in his Duplex Planet magazines, Web site, and on CDs. He tells their stories using his own voice.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

Mr. DAVID GREENBERGER (Storyteller): (Reading) I think I was so surprised to find a good looking gentleman that you are in this empty home. And you look like a happy person.

SHAPIRO: He put his new stories to music. In Milwaukee, he met people with Alzheimer's and other forms of memory loss, like the woman in his piece.

Mr. GREENBERGER: (Reading) I'm glad they have you here to get a little conversation, because it's so empty.

(singing) All alone by the telephone that's where I will be hiding.

That woman took quite a shine to me. I mean, at some point, I realized she wasn't really listening to anything I was saying. She was just sort of glad that a man was visiting.

SHAPIRO: Guitarist, Paul Cebar, collaborated on the music.

Mr. PAUL CEBAR (Guitarist): David doesn't know his immense personal magnetism.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: The work was supported by the Center on Aging and Community at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The center is run by Anne Basting.

Ms. ANNE BASTING (Director, Center on Aging and Community): That's what a conversation is. You're trying to reach out to the world around you and to the people around you, and that never goes away.

Mr. GREENBERGER: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Thank you, thank you. And then we went on. And then, it sort of graduated to, you have wonderful lips. And then, that went finally to, very kissable lips.

Mr. CEBAR: I couldn't come up with music for that.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

Mr. GREENBERGER: (Reading) I didn't expect to meet anyone here because I didn't see anybody I know. And you look so healthy. You must enjoy your location.

One of the things that I found to be true through this whole project 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.

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

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

Mr. GREENBERGER: Look at me. I'm a king. I have a red shirt. I live in Milwaukee.

SHAPIRO: Greenberger and Cebar match the words to music or sometimes, the music shape the words.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERGER: (Singing) I play drums. I play with a band. I played with Cherry James. He was in Milwaukee. We played "Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time." I played drums. My drums soloed. I hit a high hat...

Unidentified Man #1: His exuberance too comes across so much in his text that, I think that was a situation where the music and the words were a very fine mesh.

Mr. GREENBERGER: Yeah. I think that what was coming out of that was what they were playing. I felt like this guy is talking about being in a band, so let's give him that band.

(Soundbite of music)

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.

Mr. GREENBERGER: (Singing) We played at Carnegie Hall; we road a bus; there was a chauffer. Look at me; I'm a king; I have a red shirt; I live in Milwaukee.

SHAPIRO: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: 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 that I better do something to help with my memory. My daughter is the one that came up with this program here...

Mr. GREENBERGER: The narrative in this is this guy sort of talking about how he's becoming a little forgetful and he's become aware of that, and but he's okay with it.

Unidentified Man #2: Since I've been coming here, I've not noticed any further deterioration of my memory. Nothing I can detect, anyway. I'm satisfied.

Mr. GREENBERGER: So I said after that that he's okay with it, idea's established. It's like I want the curtains to open, and I want there to be like a bandstand full of people dressed up playing saxophones in this kind of just playing, you know, to the heavens, kind of.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Cebar and Greenberger performed the pieces this week in Milwaukee. Now, they hope to take them on the road.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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