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PPD Spotlight: Photographing a Mother With Alzheimer's Disease

By David Schonauer   Thursday September 10, 2015




Joan Allen  recalls the last time her mother called her by her name.

“It came out of the blue last year,” says Allen, a Los Angeles-based commercial and editorial photographer. “That day will remain one of my most precious memories.”

In 2009, Allen’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. “Mom’s diagnosis was not a surprise,” Allen says. “We had had concerns beginning when she was still in her 60s. This didn’t make the words spoken aloud any less shocking.”

For Allen and her siblings, whose father passed away in 1991, the diagnosis meant a new kind of life. “Since her diagnosis, I've dedicated much of my time to caring for her and occasionally documenting our struggle along the way,” she says.

It has been a difficult journey. Allen’s mother now resides in a hospice, following an elder abuse incident at a trusted memory-care home. “Our worst fear played out in front of us,” Allen says. “After being very happy there for three years, mom sustained a mysterious head injury to the very top of her head and had been hemorrhaging for a week without any medical attention, nor family being notified. We rushed her to the UCLA Emergency Room, where she was immediately admitted for her injury in addition to severe malnutrition. “I have now been her voice for the better part of a year, since she was unable to let anyone know that she had pain or to tell us what happened,” Allen says. The case has been turned over the of California Department of Social Services.

Earlier this summer, PPD spotlighted  a project that Allen and a number of  young photographers in Los Angeles had collaborated on — a book focused on the issue of young adults aging out the LA foster-care system. Even as she was working on that project and her own photography business, Allen was also looking after her mother and creating a photographic record of their days together.

“For years now, each time I see her, I say a final goodbye,” she says. “Mom is hanging in there as of today. She’s always been a fighter. Widowed at the age of 55 with seven children, she was a lifetime educator, pianist and violinist. Yes, my extremely intelligent, witty, musically talented and resilient mom is still hanging in there.”

It is because of her mother’s past that Allen made the decision to document her life now.

“Although I never would consider my mom as being someone who loves to be in front of the camera, I do know that she would want to help educate people and raise awareness for both Alzheimer’s Disease and elder abuse and neglect,” Allen says. “I do my best to preserve her dignity while I take photos. These days. the photos are more about what we try to bring to her during our visits and less about tight portraits of her face. I prefer to view the older images and the beautiful smiles she used to share with me. In addition to my photography and an occasional self-portrait or two, I recently reached out to a few of my professional photographer friends for help. I realize the importance, down the road, of seeing images of me with mom, not just images where there was a camera between our faces.”

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