by Sue Halpern
For the past five years I have spent every Tuesday with my dog at our local public nursing home, and in the time have spent many hours with people with dementia. I say dementia, the generic, rather than Alzheimer’s, because many residents have varying degrees of memory loss, not all of it clinically diagnosed AD, though they often present in the same way: confusion, trouble with the tasks of daily care, disorientation. Until recently, Alzheimer’s was only diagnosed upon death and autopsy, so that it didn’t really matter what you called what was going on. What mattered was that it was going on. I have seen Alzheimer’s brains–they are distinctive, surrounded by what appears to be an ever-expanding moat of cerebral spinal fluid. Brain images often tend to be beautiful, colorful. They look like weather maps, which can be beautiful, too, even as the category five hurricane is approaching.
I would like to say that people with dementia, despite their debilities, retain their essence, and from what I’ve seen, that is true for some. Or, it is true for some, some of the time. What I mean by this is that they can be generous or funny or kind, even when they don’t know who you are, or who they are, or where they are. The dog can help. People touch her and it brings them into the moment and there is a connection, a spark, and for a while there is light.
But of course, over five years, I have watched people lose their words and lose their way. And I have watched, with a kind of displaced gratitude, the devotion of family members, even when that loss encompasses them. I use the words “family members” loosely. I don’t always know how people are related, only that they are in some fundamental way. There are days when I can be slapped out of the despair that comes from knowing what is going on in the larger world, by watching a man brushing his wife’s hair, or a daughter holding her mother’s hand as they walk down the hall. I don’t doubt for a moment that there isn’t despair there, but tempered by love, it bends.
This is what I see in Banker White’s beautiful rendering of his mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. He set out to document her decline, and he does, but all the while another image–a stronger image, of love made tangible–appears in every frame.