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STILL THE QUEEN

Three Years with Dementia

My mother was a proud and stylish woman, a cultural byproduct of the glamourous 1940s-1960s social scene that, at least in the South, emphasized beauty, housekeeping, and hospitality. She was known for her prize-winning coconut cake, homemade ice cream, and being overdressed on all occasions. She waged war with the brown roots that emerged from her bleach-blond hair every four weeks, and while Clairol helped win that battle, it took a massive amount of time and effort. Make no mistake, mom was intelligent, perceptive, and complex, but those traits weren’t valued in her culture so she focused instead on societal expectations. Her goal was beauty – both literal and figurative – which made her subsequent battle with dementia even more brutal as it robbed mom of everything she once cared about, including her looks, friends, and social graces. Dementia stole my mother long before she died. 


As the adopted daughter of this once-proud woman, it was a surreal experience to visit the same county court where she had adopted me to “adopt her back” as conservator. Role reversal is common with aging parents, but this added a striking layer of complexity. Mom and I, once again, left court together on a life-altering trajectory.


Mom was furious about being placed in memory care. Some days felt hopeless, as it was hard to please an angry, aging diva. As a psychologist, I knew I needed to use her strengths to help her adjust.  As a photographer, it finally dawned on me that mom might like to be photographed, since she was once a model. Though I don’t know if she actually remembered being a model, what I do know is that her demeanor changed once I asked if I could take her picture. She was once again the center of attention and would proudly announce to her friends “This is my daughter. She loves to take my picture!” It was the unexpected gift of dementia that through this photographic adventure, my mother and I became closer than we had ever been.

My mother’s experiences are at once both deeply personal and profoundly universal, as all good stories should be. Her journey with dementia is now part of my DNA so I will pursue future projects on related concepts such as caregiver stress, financial and physical abuse, and life after loss to name a few. There are many avenues to explore, and my goal is to make this a career-long project – both as a photographer and a psychologist - until a cure is found. If I am alive when that happens, I will visit my mom’s grave and give thanks once again.

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12 / The Photobomb

Mom loved visits and had many visitors including her grandson, depicted here photobombing this shot. This was a wonderful day because she could somehow pull herself together a bit and try to converse when the grandchildren visited. Her conversations were repetitive and didn't always make sense, and she would typically call the children by random names, but she expressed her love for them as best as she could, and they understood. Mom also loved talking on the phone, an ability she lost soon after this photograph was taken. Even here, someone had to find the number, dial it for her, put the phone in the proper position, and tell her when to talk. She had to be prompted to speak loudly into the receiver and sometimes had to be prompted to say 'hello.' Nevertheless, she enjoyed this even though she didn’t know who she was talking to, nor did she know what they talked about almost immediately afterwards. She literally lived 'in the moment' and grandsons and telephone calls made her happy--at least for a while.