Alzheimer's Claims Painter's Memories, Not Art Seven years ago, Ken Rabb was a legal aid lawyer and a weekend painter. But at the age of 53, he was diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer's. Although he talks relatively little now and can no longer read, his art has flourished and he spends much of his time painting.
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Alzheimer's Claims Painter's Memories, Not Art

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Alzheimer's Claims Painter's Memories, Not Art

Alzheimer's Claims Painter's Memories, Not Art

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Seven years ago, Ken Rabb was a legal aid lawyer who painted for a hobby. Then he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's at the age of 53. Soon, Rabb was on disability and unable to work. He needs round-the-clock care.

Now, art is what Ken Rabb does all the time. Some of his paintings were recently exhibited at a Harlem café. And NPR's Margot Adler visited Rabb in his apartment.

MARGOT ADLER: This is how Stuart Post remembers his partner Ken Rabb.

Mr. STUART POST: He was an intensely intellectual person. It's sort of amazing to me that there was a time I was hanging out with somebody who read the New York Review of Books, and of course all of that is gone.

ADLER: Today Rabb reminds one a tiny bit of the character in the film "Being There." He smiles often, seems compassionate and his home care companion, Jane Hart, often finishes his sentences.

Ms. JANE HART: Want to tell Margot who that is in that painting?

Mr. KEN RABB: What?

Ms. HART: This painting here.

Mr. RABB: Yeah?

Ms. HART: That's a painting you did.

Mr. RABB: Yeah.

Ms. HART: And who is that? It's your sister.

Mr. RABB: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. HART: Your sister, Virginia.

Mr. RABB: Yeah.

ADLER: The apartment we are standing in is a stunner. His art is everywhere. Once, he considered himself a weekend painter and agonized over his technique. Now, every inch of wall space is taken up with abstract oil paintings, painted plates and collages of found objects.

Where does all this stuff come from?

Mr. RABB: In the street.

ADLER: You just find it?

Mr. RABB: Yeah. If I'm walking around and then we would see something, I'd pick it up.

ADLER: Let's maybe go into the hallway and look at some of the paintings there.

Mr. RABB: Okay.

ADLER: Several pieces on wooden blocks feature many thin metal strips. I'm asked to guess what they are. I have no idea. I want Rabb to tell me. That's not so easy, Rabb's forgotten.

Mr. RABB: What is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RABB: I forgot.

Ms. HART: Um, it's the bristles to a street cleaner.

Mr. RABB: Yes.

ADLER: Jane Hart, who is now Rabb's full-time companion, says he is always picking up little items from the street. And now that I've seen these metal discards, she bets I'm going to see them everywhere. She says when he was diagnosed six years ago, his partner didn't want Ken to simply have a home aide.

Ms. HART: Stuart uses the word peer - someone who goes to museums, who reads books like Kenny read when he read books. I go through his photo albums with him. I meet his friends and, you know, we remember stories from his past so we can be his memory for him.

ADLER: I watch him paint a small abstract oil painting. He's not really able to talk about it. Jane says Kenny has limited language, has more and more problems following the plot of a film, doesn't recognize himself in the mirror. When I ask him how much time he spends on his art each day, he doesn't know. But then something will grab him and for a minute he's totally there. He takes out a tiny bust of FDR, his favorite president.

Mr. RABB: So this was really cheap at the flea market. I think he's great.

ADLER: Since he's physically robust, Kenny and Jane spend hours every day exploring the city: museums, stores, galleries. Stuart Post says he knows they are very lucky. Look, they don't have kids, Kenny doesn't have a mortgage, he has no one to support, he has some money from his family. They've been able to expand the period where he can have a rich and enjoyable quality of life.

Mr. POST: He and I have a middle-class access. And of course, everybody should have that middle-class access, and don't. What we've put in place is costing well over $100,000 a year. And of course this can't go on forever, and I do the math in my head all of the time. But Ken's needs are going to be different in four years than they are now. And from my standpoint it's really important to spend the money now where the quality makes a big difference in Ken's life.

ADLER: But Stuart says he knows the writing is on the wall.

Mr. POST: Despite my best efforts, there's going to come a time soon where I can't change it. I can't hug Ken and say, oh, everything's going to be all right. You know, everything's not going to be all right.

ADLER: We go up to Harlem. We go into the Tanto Dulce Cafe, where Kenny's paintings are hanging. We eat. We walk outside. Suddenly, Kenny has picked up something from the street. It's one of those metal bristles from a street cleaner.

He found one. It was on the ground?

Mr. RABB: Yeah.

ADLER: Oh, my god. And you just found it. You're right. I'm now going to see one everywhere I go.

At least for now, even with Alzheimer's, he keeps noticing things. And it's these small things - a piece of metal on the street - that give joy to Ken Rabb's day.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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