Before Rebecca and Michael Carley’s son was born in 2007, Rebecca and her mother painted a vivid coral reef mural on the walls of the child’s soon-to-be bedroom. The undersea scene featured a crab, a seahorse and an octopus. Though it was no Sistine Chapel, the mural still looked fairly realistic.
Seven years later, Rebecca was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and her art became more abstract and indefinable. Four years after that, the artwork stopped altogether.
Alzheimer’s disease affects 5.8 million Americans, each with a story as unique as Rebecca’s. The way in which symptoms manifest varies from person to person. Apart from the traditional memory loss, some warning signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s include frequent falls, depression, unfocused staring, the eating of nonfood objects, and stealing or other law-breaking activities.
In Rebecca’s case, her early symptoms included headaches and short-term memory loss, prompting a visit to a neurologist in 2012. Next, she was sent elsewhere to be evaluated for multiple sclerosis. Finally, through the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center, she was officially diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in July of 2014. She was just 45.
Unable to work full time, she turned to creative hobbies to occupy her time. Though never a professional artist, she definitely had a proclivity for creative and artistic endeavors, as evidenced by her previous work in web and graphic design.
She started with knitting socks and hats, but she soon moved on to coloring and drawing as — her husband hypothesizes — her short-term memory diminished and she had trouble counting stitches.
Rebecca tried adult coloring books for a while, but was soon creating her own abstract designs, full of interlocking lines and embellished with vibrant colors. As a result of her disease, she was not capable of planning out pieces in a traditional way, as a portraitist would. But her artistic sensibility remained, and her pieces were beautiful, multicolored medleys that she called “unintentional art.”
A former scuba diver who now found herself unable to partake in one of her favorite pastimes, Rebecca’s love of the ocean was instead demonstrated through her art; it seeped its way into her creations in the form of winding tentacles, googly-eyed fish, swirling snails, and the like.
Other parts of her life popped up in her work, too. The moose in “The Great Alaskan Outdoors” was one of Michael’s favorite animals in a place he lived as a child. The piece entitled “Hope for the Broncos,” a tribute to the house-favorite Denver Broncos shortly before they won Super Bowl 50. And “Lord of the Wild Ones,” a likely a nod to Where the Wild Things Are, which she often read with their son.
Eventually, the work became less detailed, with fewer recurring thematic elements, less cohesion within pieces, and more blank space left on the page.
A smaller canvas
In September 2016 — a little over two years after her diagnosis — she switched from full-sized drawings to smaller-scaled bookmarks. The tinier canvas allowed her the freedom to add more color, experiment with different patterns and shapes, and work at a much faster pace. But she usually no longer remembered to date her work, and the designs soon became haphazard and even less defined.
During a vacation in June 2018, Rebecca struggled with her artwork and spent very little time on her bookmarks. Upon returning from the trip, she lost interest altogether.
After a seizure in November 2018, Rebecca could no longer be left at home alone, and now spends her days in an adult day care center while Michael is at work. Occasionally they do art projects, but it’s a significant effort for her, and not the joyous activity she once so enthusiastically enjoyed.
Rebecca is now in stage six (of seven) of Alzheimer’s: she has lost most of her vocabulary and struggles with anxiety and frustration as a direct result of her situation. But through it all, she still finds opportunities for joy where she can; she cannot sing so she hums, she cannot draw intricate pictures so she scribbles here and there.
This is a sad and tragic tale, but Michael chooses to focus on the silver lining around the gloomy cloud that is Alzheimer’s: he got to see his wife’s creativity blossom. As her cognitive brain was undergoing massive changes, so too was her artistic brain, which allowed for a completely new level of creativity that she hadn’t previously displayed.
Her artwork over the past few years has served as a useful tool in tracking the progression of the disease. But perhaps more importantly, it has brought some much-needed beauty into the world.