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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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17 / Glee

As noted earlier, one of the hallmarks of dementia is that the patient progressively becomes more childlike in many ways. Mom sometimes talked in a childish fashion and she regressed in many other ways, such as her new affinity for dolls and toys. The role reversals occurred with her caregivers as well as myself. Here, the parent-child dynamic is illustrated quite well as mom is seen looking up at her caregiver with an innocent look of glee, just as a toddler might gaze at a beloved parent.