Confronting memory loss, he finds inspiration through art

07/03/2015 2:30 PM |
Robert Mince, 66, has his artwork on display in the hallway of the Riverhead Town Senior Center, where he spends a lot of his time during the week. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Robert Mince, 66, has his artwork on display in the hallway of the Riverhead Town Senior Center, where he spends a lot of his time during the week. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

As a visitor approaches, the man with graying hair sits at a table, blending in among the dozen or so other senior citizens. He turns his head and introduces himself, politely asking if he can finish his oatmeal. He loves oatmeal.

“A lot of people complain that they don’t like it,” he later comments.

His name is Robert Mince, the son of a famous clarinet player, a man who can sing opera, who plays the piano and spends much of his time painting abstract drawings using bright, vibrant colors. 

It’s here, in the Riverhead Town Senior Center in Aquebogue, where Mr. Mince sets himself free during the week. It’s a place where he can allow his imagination to run wild, share his passions and, surprisingly enough, even find love.

He’s 66 years old, a man who dreams and aspires to accomplish so much more in his life. He approaches each day with unbridled enthusiasm, eager to begin the next chapter of his life.

Mr. Mince is enthusiastic to share his stories, and on this day, which he says is his first-ever interview, he cautions that his thoughts may be a bit muddy. Earlier in the morning, he underwent a PET scan prescribed by a neurologist. He lightly rubs his head.

He’s hopeful that doctor visits will soon be behind him, but the reality is that’s unlikely.

Mr. Mince lives with twin sister, Laura, who was born four minutes before him, and her husband, Charles, in Jamesport.

He refers to his sister, who has been taking him to the center for about seven months, since he moved from Sacramento, as his “memory recaller.”

His father, Johnny Mince, was a mainstay during the big band era, playing the clarinet alongside famous musicians like Tommy Dorsey. His father died in 1994 at the age of 82. Toward the end, Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of his memories.

Robert would sing songs to his father in his final weeks. He asked his father once if he could hear his voice. His father made a muttering noise.

“He couldn’t say anything, but I believe that something happened,” he says.

More than 20 years now after his father died, Mr. Mince talks about his own memory issues. He’s happy, he says, and functioning. He doesn’t worry about any illness.

“Nobody [at the Senior Center] thinks I’m very ill,” he explains. “No. I have my mumble. Memory was a problem for a while and I decided when I woke up, why should I sit around and feel sad?”

Robert Mince sings the National Anthem at an NHL game featuring the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Credit: courtesy)

Robert Mince sings the National Anthem at an NHL game featuring the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Credit: courtesy)

He carries with him a book titled “The Courage to Create,” written by Rollo May in 1975. It’s an inspirational book, meant to help unlock a person’s inner imagination, to seize one’s creative impulses.

Mr. Mince cherishes the words inside the book. Quickly, as is often the case with Mr. Mince, the conversation shifts back to his paintings. He has more than 200, nearly two dozen of which now hang on the lobby wall in the senior center. A sign in front says “Artwork by Robert Mince.”

He recently posed for a picture next to his paintings with Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter. Mr. Mince proudly recounts the meeting as he points to the different paintings, describing each in detail. He struggles to recall Mr. Walter’s name but remembers that he’s a Republican.

“He came in and was so taken by what he saw,” Mr. Mince says. “I’m not trying to brag. He said he wanted to stand next to me because I’m the artist.”

There’s one painting that stands above all the rest for Mr. Mince. It’s a painting of a ship, its three propellers all positioned out of the water. It’s a colorful mix of bright orange and pink; the ship’s bow extends up like an elephant trunk until it becomes a bright-shining spotlight. High above the ship float three planets with rings resembling Saturn’s. Mr. Mince spent much of his life as a science teacher. He hopes to become an art teacher, although he knows it will likely take about four years. In the meantime, he’s eager to begin teaching art to his fellow senior citizens at the center.

“This is the thrill of my life,” he says.

Mr. Mince's favorite painting.

Mr. Mince’s favorite painting.

He finds inspiration for his paintings from all over. Adventure movies, he says, are loaded with colors.

“This could be the beginning,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I love it.”

About three months ago at the center, Mr. Mince, who has never been married, sat next to a woman in her 70s whom he had never met. They began talking and quickly grew fond of each other, he says. Now they dance and joke with each other (she’s a better dancer, he admits).

One day, as his girlfriend prepared to go home, she turned to him and said, “I love you.”

“That’s a really good thing,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he tells the story.

His girlfriend, Mr. Mince says, also suffers from memory loss. He’s not sure if it’s Alzheimer’s. The memory loss can be a strain at times. They enjoy eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together at lunch. Sometimes, she forgets that she enjoys them. Mr. Mince is there to get her “PB&Js.”

Mr. Mince has also developed a close relationship with Judy Doll, who’s worked for more than 20 years as the head of the senior center. It was Ms. Doll who encouraged him to share his stories to help inspire others.

“I don’t think Alzheimer’s can really get me,” he says. “I’m too strong in some way. I’m not afraid.”

As the interview ends, Mr. Mince realizes it’s almost lunch time. His PET scan earlier in the day forced him to limit his food intake the previous two days.

He’s eager to eat again and join his girlfriend for lunch. On the menu: peanut butter and jelly.

“I’m a lucky guy,” he says.

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