BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of the Hereafter, Love Stories from the End of Life

by Janet Simpson Benvenuti

The Heart of the HereafterEach month I read dozens of books, articles and research reports about aging and healthcare, looking for tidbits of information that I can share with you, knowledge that will make your family life easier, healthier, more joyful. After 25 years in healthcare, it’s rare that I find a book that makes me pause and reconsider how we care for the dying. The Heart of the Hereafter, Love Stories from the End of Life, is one of those books.

Author Marcia Brennan, Ph.D., is a professor of Art History and Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also is the Artist In Residence in palliative medicine at the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Curious about her role, I anticipated that her book would describe anecdotally how art therapy can help a patient cope with their cancer diagnosis. Far from that, Dr. Brennan becomes our guide to life’s greatest transition – death – using art as the language to describe what words cannot.

Dr. Brennan briefly provides context about historical guides to the art of dying called the ars morendi, small printed books widely used in the 14th century to help people understand the dying process and acknowledge the moment between living and death, when an individual is suspended between worlds. “Sometimes when I visit people at the end of life,” she writes, “I get the sense that they are inhabiting multiple worlds at once…their physical appearance changes and they become extremely beautiful.” This state of grace, a moment of sustained peace and comfort, a convergence of the physical and spiritual, is captured through her stories about 10 patients, including a child, who are dying.

In “The Heart,” Dr. Brennan brilliantly demonstrates how she creates a complete summation of each patient’s life in a single poem, words that are transformed by a visual artist into a charcoal drawing. She places their reflection in the context of her deep knowledge about religion and art, centering each story around the different types of love that influence and transform a person’s life. The result is breathtaking, especially as each patient acknowledges the accuracy of her work, comforted by her understanding and a sense of accompaniment when facing the transition between worlds.

The news today is full of stories about how to navigate the last years of life. Housing choices, hospice care, insurance coverage and legal plans are mundane but necessary decisions that distract families from what truly matters: being present with loved ones in the last months and moments of their lives. Dr. Brennan, a stranger to the patients she meets, reminds us that our role is to listen and affirm, to remain open to whatever arises, to acknowledge that “the end of life is all about life itself and the many different types of love that we experience as human beings.” This book is a gift to us, one to re-read each time someone in your life approaches the end of their own.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Click this link to purchase The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Life

c2015 Circle of Life Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s

by Jan Simpson

Recently I attended a forum in Boston where I met Dr. John Zeisel and Sean Caulfield, co-founders of ARTZ, an organization that hosts community events for people living with memory loss and their caregivers. Drawing on the support of artists and cultural institutions such as the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Australia, the Big Apple Circus and the Tribeca Film Institute, ARTZ has enable thousands of people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias to have access to arts and culture.

Standing before an art exhibit, John spoke passionately about how art experiences can significantly enhance the lives of those living with dementia. The evidence surrounded him as the room was filled with paintings and photography created by people living with Alzheimer’s disease. I could feel the joy they all must have felt as they created their paintings, many perhaps beyond the point where they could express themselves with words. While some paintings were detailed and colorful, my eyes were drawn to one that appeared rather simplistic, a Star of David and a rectangle with colored bars. “That person,” John said, “could no longer speak but he was telling us, ‘I’m still here.'”  When his family saw the painting, they began to cry. Their father was a Holocaust survivor and his drawing captured his memory of that experience. “Alzheimer’s doesn’t take away memory, your memories are all in there. It’s as if you put the memories in the glove compartment and you lost the key; the art unlocks it,” said John.

ARTZ does more than encourage artistic expression.  By creating interactive, educational programs in partnership with museums and theaters, it allows elders to enjoy an outing that is stimulating and therapeutic. Art experiences have been shown to significantly reduce psycho-behavioral symptoms often associated with dementia, such as anxiety, aggression and agitation, and to optimize remaining capacities.

On December 15th, I’ll be volunteering in Boston at “Meet Me at the Coolidge…and Make Memories” an interactive film program for people with memory loss and their partners. The film event was designed specifically to encourage audience discussion and reminiscence. The program will show short clips from classic films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Tickets are free. If you have a loved one living with dementia, consider bringing them to the program.  Click here to learn more about ARTZ and all of the programs it sponsors.  If someone you love is experiencing memory loss, consider adding art to his or her activities.

Do you have stories to share about the arts and your older loved ones?

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