SPECIAL REPORT: Type of dementia seen in Las Vegas patients inspires art in some

Coping through creativity
In this FOX5 special report, John Huck looks at how art is being used as therapy for a rare form of dementia known as FTD.
Updated: Nov. 26, 2019 at 9:30 PM PST
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Looking at the paintings, you wouldn’t know the man who painted them never picked up a paint brush until after he was diagnosed with a cruel form of dementia.

Only after Beecher Trail was diagnosed did this talent for painting surface. His story and others have doctors rethinking how they treat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“He came home and he said, ‘I went to speak tonight but the words wouldn’t come out,’” said Nancy Trail. There had been signs before that night that something wasn’t quite right with Beecher Trail.

The gregarious man who enjoyed wearing tie-dye shirts was slowly withdrawing from family and his wife Nancy. Then in September of 2013 came the diagnosis.

“That’s when they determined that he had FTD and it just went downhill from there,” Nancy said.

FTD, or fronto-temporal dementia, is a form of dementia that stole Beecher’s personality and his ability to work and to communicate.

“Once he got sick, he was this gentle soul, he was like a child. Just trying to find love and happiness in each day.”

And then came an awakening of sorts when Nancy took him to her water color class. It was like a light turned on for this Vietnam veteran who never before painted.

He painted a lot after that. Early on he would set up a table at art shows and Nancy’s favorite painting hangs in her living room.

“I was amazed,” said Nancy. “And he went out to show it to somebody and actually gave it away and I had to go retrieve it and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m keeping this one. I’ll make you a copy.’”

All of this from a man suffering a degenerative brain disorder. How?

“Sometimes we see these people with this creative side that never gets developed in the course of normal human development but in this disease it comes out in fascinating ways,” said Dr. Aaron Ritter of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

Doctors at Lou Ruvo identified a tiny subset of patients like Beecher. Ruvo holds weekly music and art therapy classes.

Bill Kramer brought his wife Renee there after her early on-set Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

“It was like getting my wife back. For a little bit,” he said. “It gave us something to do together for a few minutes afterwards but it was a good place. I felt she was safe and getting something out of it.”

Doctors said this kind of therapy is rare, but they like the reports they’re getting.

“We hear from caregivers that they seem sharper, more alert, more attentive. They are more engaged and we think this is because either the music itself or the art itself or just the practice of doing something that’s engaging and interesting and different on a daily basis,” said Dr. Dylan Wint.

Nancy Nelson was diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s six years ago. Like other Alzheimer’s patients, sleep comes in fits. Nancy often wakes at 3 in the morning and starts writing.”

“In these words that come to me, and they still come to me, there are solutions in those words and I write them down,” she said. “They made sense to me, they helped me. They helped me understand it’s better to help others than to be disgruntled, unhappy and unbrooding.”

She published three books, sets of poems that document her journey through frustration and anger to understanding and even hope.

With Alzheimer’s, the caregivers suffer as much as the patients. Michael Bennett admitted he underestimated what it would take to be his mom’s sole caretaker. He wrote “Rusty’s War” as a kind of therapy for him.

The book tells the story of his mother’s decline through the eyes of her Dachshund.

“It was one of those things that I was airing out my frustrations. I was so angry that my mom had the disease but there was so little, not only documentation but financial implications,” said Bennett.

Toward the end of his life, Beecher’s diminished abilities would only let him paint pages out of a coloring book. He died in 2016.

Nancy Nelson has plans for a fourth book under the “Blue. River. Apple.” title.

Why that title? They’re the three words she could not remember in the test that revealed her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

“Stand tall, straight, and accountable again. My shoulders square, my jaw relaxes my heart sings. I am who I want to be. I am warrior.”

For more information on Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, click here. For more information on FTD, click here.