The Unpainted Canvas

Alzheimer’s can drain a person of the vibrancy of their memories. But with support, love, and compassion, some colors can return.

In a modest home in Rye, just a few miles from the New Hampshire shoreline, a couple sits together on the couch. The TV is on and a cooling meal is perched on the coffee table. The salt air from the coast sneaks in through the open window; an evergreen reminder that the ocean is close and it always beckons. Framed watercolors line the walls.

For nearly all of her adult life, Judy Sponaugle heeded that call. Shin-deep in tide pools, she and her children would comb through the washed-up flotsam and jetsam, looking for shells and other ocean-borne oddities. Back at home she would paint these moments, preserving these memories with the hues of her watercolors.

Those pictures still hang in the living room. But for Judy, who has Stage 3 Alzheimer’s, they are relics of a past life—snapshots in a timeline that has grown further and further detached from her reality. Today, her supper remains half-eaten as her husband Woody sits beside her, leafing through a book of art that she had published many years ago. He gently prods her memories, trying to elicit recognition of the art she had created. She smiles, but nothing registers.

In 2010, Judy received her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, following two years of increasing memory issues. As her neural pathways gradually eroded, so, too, did her interest in the activity that she had loved so much throughout her life—her watercolors.

Five years ago was the last time she picked up a paintbrush.


When Woody Sponaugle heard his wife’s diagnosis, the very foundation of his life was immediately turned upside down. A retired attorney, Woody now had to re-orient himself to the foreign concept of becoming a full-time caregiver.

“You ask yourself so many questions,” he said. “Am I doing this right? Do I need to get more information? Is tonight’s meal good enough?”

Realizing he couldn’t be the only person thinking like this, Woody started a men’s support group for husbands of spouses with Alzheimer’s (the only one in New Hampshire). His purpose: to reach men who were going through the same emotional trek that he had endured (and continues to endure), a journey marked with grief and guilt and the constant, ever-present shadow of doubt.

“With your wife you used to be a team, an organization, and now you’re not,” Woody says. “Now you don’t have that person to bounce ideas off to get feedback and, as a result, your relationship declines.”

Woody describes Alzheimer’s as “a glide path,” a steady, downward trajectory where the best you can do is manage an inexorable decline and maximize the time you have with the person with whom you had spent decades forging a life.

“You ask yourself so many questions,” he said. “Am I doing this right? Do I need to get more information? Is tonight’s meal good enough?”

In June 2016, Woody and Judy began to receive case management support through Crotched Mountain Community Care (CMCC). Billed through the Choices for Independence (CFI) Medicaid waiver, CMCC’s services bring direct care professionals into the home to serve Judy’s needs, help improve her quality of life, and give Woody respite.

For several hours a week, a nurse comes in once every other week to monitor Judy’s vitals, check medication, and answer Woody’s questions and home health aides deliver personal care services to Judy such as bathing help, cleaning around the house, and exercise.

“Having this support has made all the difference in the world,” Woody says. “You just get so tired sometimes. And where we used to be isolated, now we have people who are stopping by to check on us regularly.”

And, as Woody tells the men in his support group, you need to carve out time for yourself so you don’t get burned out; with CMCC alongside, he’s been able to sneak away for a few hours here or there to recharge. Like the time he heard about the stand down the road that served homemade potato donuts. When the aides came that next time, he took a quick trip to investigate. Because sometimes all you need is a potato donut.


When Pam, one of the aides, began working with Judy, the two struck up an immediate connection. Pam kept her active and engaged and Judy was responding.

Then, a few weeks later, a spark fired up deep in the recesses of Judy’s labyrinthine mind, a neural pathway or two that had been dormant for the past five years suddenly began to fire.

That’s when Judy picked up her brush and started to paint again.

They were simple drawings, abstract expressions of color and shapes, very different from the watercolors she used to produce. But there was a clear message in these creations: the creative fire that illuminated her for so many years was alive again–and that was more than enough for Woody.

Now he has support. Now he has backup. But he needs something else.

He needs more frames.

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