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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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24 / Beauty Restored

After death, mom’s body was flown to her former home in Tennessee for burial. The airline required her to make a layover in Atlanta so she took a little trip from North Carolina to Atlanta to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee before heading into the small town where she formerly lived. I think she would have found this humorous. She always loved to travel so she managed to get in one more side trip before her final rest. It is her culture and generation's tradition to have an open casket ceremony. I was not on-board with this and was terrified to see her dead, as were many others, but all of us ended up glad we did. We apparently hired some geniuses of the funeral industry because my mother was magically transformed thanks to the funeral workers’ care. She looked 20 years younger, vibrant, “alive,” and healthy. In fact, it appeared that she was just sleeping and that she might wake up at any moment to yell at me about my hair. I think everyone was glad to have this image as their final memory of her versus the harrowing memories we had of her final months with dementia, during which she was robbed of her looks and her “self,” but as odd as it seems, and