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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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14 / Sharps

My mother became well known for stealing sharps and scissors. No one realized she was hoarding these items for quite some time, as she carefully hid them around her room. Her goal wasn't to harm herself, but rather to use them to cut off the expensive prescription compression hose that she was required to wear due to edema. These hose cost $50 each and she cut up every pair she owned because she hated the 'feel' of them. The staff wondered how she was cutting them off, since residents didn’t have access to any sharps, but she successfully removed them every single day. The matter was solved once they did an intensive room search and uncovered a huge stash of sharps hidden in her room. They learned that she had been stealing scissors off carts and knives from the dinner table to hoard in her room for such occasions. It's just one of the mysteries of dementia that mom couldn't remember basic information yet somehow knew how to palm contraband, successfully hide it, and then cut off tight hosiery with such surgical precision that she never hurt herself in the process. After the nursing staff reclaimed all the sharps, mom refused to give in. She was adamantly NOT going