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Artist turns her work into love letters to husband fading into the fog of Alzheimer's


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: We turn now to a story about art and love.

Rhode Island PBS Weekly reporter Pamela Watts introduces us to a Massachusetts artist whose work took a dramatic turn when she says her husband began to lose himself to Alzheimer's disease.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Sara Holbrook, Artist: Art is essential for my life here. I'm visual. And it's important for me to express myself through art.

Pamela Watts: For Sara Holbrook, being able to express herself through her art took on a whole new meaning more than a decade ago.

Sara Holbrook: My husband, Foster Aborn, he was the love of my life.

Probably about 12 years ago, he drove home in a snowstorm, and he forgot where he was going. And he called his doctor the next day and said that this was not usual. He was worried about his memory. And, at that time, he had mild cognitive impairment. They said not to worry. And he was still fine for a long time after that.

Pamela Watts: Holbrook specialized in watercolors, but was curious about photography and enrolled in a class.

Sara Holbrook: I fell in love with photography. And then it was crucial when my husband was ill, because I didn't have time to paint. That takes a lot of time and concentration.

If he took a nap or something, I could do my art in stages, which is important. I would take a background photo, and then I would take a photograph of myself. I had to be dressed as I needed to be for the photograph and I had to be in the right position. And that was always a little difficult to figure out how to do that, but that worked.

And then I put it on the computer and scaled it down and then printed it out, and I cut it out, and I pasted it on to the background photo, and then I rephotographed it. That was my process.

Pamela Watts: A process that later turned out to be a mirror image of what she was experiencing.

Sara Holbrook: I entitled my work 99 Problems, because that also reflects what I was dealing with as a caregiver for somebody with Alzheimer's, as somebody's trapped and couldn't get out.

As a spouse, you're stuck. The hardest part for me was not getting any sleep. I was always on alert, because he would wake up in the middle of the night and leave the house, so I had to be ready to try to persuade him to come back, or I'd have to follow him outside and walk around, and call the police sometimes if I couldn't persuade him to come back. The police knew him pretty well.

How I dealt with it on the worst days was by knowing that I loved him and that he was a worthy human being, even if I was frustrated.

Pamela Watts: But Holbrook says humor often eased her frustration.

Sara Holbrook: You don't know whether to laugh or cry when you look at my work, but you get it.

This is called Rinse Cycle. It was a very, very bad day. It just shows intense frustration. So, we both love Paris, and that was my place for shooting with my camera. I just felt so alive there. In October 2019, I was walking around Paris with Foster. I had been taking photographs, and I saw some people gathering.

They were carrying these life-size cutouts of people, and I was just fascinated. I wanted to take a photograph, and it wasn't long at all, but I turned around, and Foster was gone. And after an hour of looking, I came back to the hotel, and Foster was there with this lovely young man, and the man said that he, in fact, was a researcher in Alzheimer's.

And Foster found him in the whole city of Paris and went up to him and asked for help. Absolutely amazing. I kept him far longer than anybody said that I should have at home, because I loved him. And putting him somewhere just didn't seem right, but, eventually, I had to do it.

We were really close to one another. And even when he was in memory care, we had fun. I danced with him when I would go in. You know, it was still very intimate.

Pamela Watts: Foster Aborn passed away in April of 2023, but memories of him still live on in Sara Holbrook's art.

Sara Holbrook: My understanding of Alzheimer's is, it's really a different process for everybody, but it is usually very frustrating for the caregiver. It's just your favorite person has become somebody else, basically, and that's very hard to digest.

If you're an artist, you're driven to do something artistic. It gave me a way to express how frustrated I was, and, somehow, that relieved the frustration. And art's terrific that way.

Pamela Watts: Holbrook says she finds some comfort in knowing that her art has helped other people in the same situation.

Sara Holbrook: Even though they didn't do the art -- for me, it was a joy to do the art, but people looking at it, I think, feel that it gives them license to own that frustration as well.

I hope my art shows the love that I have for my husband, but also shows that it's the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with in my life. It was a long journey to be with somebody with Alzheimer's, because this is really a strange one. When people's minds go, it's difficult.

I have just been coping. It's -- I don't know how I'm doing. It's just going to take time. I will deal with it at some point and be on another project.

Pamela Watts: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Pamela Watts in Providence, Rhode Island.

Amna Nawaz: What an incredible love story.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

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