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Reasons to Smile with Dementia

Kathryn Harrison
By Kathryn HarrisonSeptember 25, 2015

Fine artist Kathryn Harrison completed a series of artworks related to caregiving and dementia, in response to her personal experience with her mother’s disease.

Learn more from Kathryn about her experience with the disease and her reasons to smile with dementia.

Reasons to Smile with Dementia

My mom was diagnosed with early-onset dementia shortly after my second child, my son, was born in 2005. My daughter had just turned two. It was not a surprise as mom had been showing signs for a while, but it was heartbreaking. She was only 62.

What I didn’t know then was how much my two small children would help when faced with this disease.

In the beginning, although my mom sometimes got annoyed by the noise and movement of my children, we discovered things that gave mom great joy from having kids around. She loved blowing and catching bubbles. She liked all the musical toys that played old familiar tunes. We would sing and dance together. She enjoyed Christmas tree decorating with reckless abandonment, literally throwing the decorations on the tree with my kids. They loved that too! She would often colour in colouring books, sitting happy for hours. She also enjoyed touching my son’s Touch&Feel books, especially as her ability to communicate started to fade.

These practical discoveries helped us care for mom better and, motivated me to create my mom’s own Touch&Feel book. It included photos, favorite rhymes and songs, all mixed with supporting interactive touch components. We used this book as a means to connect with her, even during later stages.

But what was more significant about having young children around, was how they developed strength in the presence of the disease, even as my mom declined. From the start, my kids were gentle, non-judging and natural with her. Then, as my mom progressed further, they were able to look beyond the illness and learned to give loving care. The connection of the heart was more important to them than any changes from the illness. In this new role of caregivers, they also became more sure of themselves. Their growing confidence and their giving actions lent me great strength. They were transforming in the face of the disease and this change helped heal my heart.

I have created art works to share this experience. The first series includes three acrylic paintings. In these pieces I contrast bright with dark and smooth texture with rough to direct the focus on the children and their positive growth in the presence of disease. The painting, “Assistance,” shows how the caregiver roles switched with dementia, from grandmother to granddaughter. In the second painting, “Adjustments,” I acknowledge how my young son is not only aware but actively supports the constant need to make changes as a result of the disease. The final painting, “Acceptance,” is the work which really highlights the power of my daughter to comfort and my son to smile in the face of adversity, accepting their Nana with love, unquestionably. Their approach helped me to find acceptance and courage.

My children were my new heroes during this time. Together with caring nurses, PSWs, counsellors and friends, these individuals made my world so much brighter. In my second series, I use photo collages to create images that are a tribute to all my champions from this disease. In these metaphorical works, lively and colourful blooms grow out of bleak landscapes, representing the strength that I saw growing during the devastation of dementia.

My third creative response to dementia is still a work-in-progress. I am creating a picture book for young children about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The illustrated story portrays a young girl as the protagonist, and is aimed at cultivating understanding, acceptance and courage.

My mom passed away from dementia in 2010. Now, 5 years later, I realize more than ever that out of the darkness, out of the fog, love led the way and revealed inspiring strength. I am thankful for this experience and want to share it with you.

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About the Author

Following an MBA and a lengthy career in marketing and advertising, motherhood drew me to pursue my more artistic passions and earn a Diploma of Fine Art from the Toronto School of Art.

Then when my vibrant mother was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2005, my artwork took a turn towards this disease. Through art, I have been able to express the difficult experience of caring for and losing someone to this illness.

My most recent project is to create a children’s picture book about Alzheimer’s and other dementias. It’s called “Weeds in Nana’s Garden.” This effort is aimed, not only at increasing education and awareness, but also to raise funds for Alzheimer’s related charities (a portion of all proceeds will be donated). The book will be available towards the end of 2015.

Please contact me through my website: for progress on the book, or connect with me on Instagram to view my artwork.

What reasons to smile with dementia have you found in your life? Share your life experiences with us in the comments below.

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Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison

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