Frame of heart-touching memories

On her recent visit to Kochi, professor Cathy Greenblat talks about her career photographing dementia patients
Pic Arun Angela
Pic Arun Angela

KOCHI: When US-based professor Cathy Greenblat, a photographer who captures images related to ageing, dementia, and end-of-life care, presented her visiting card, it came with a surprise. On the back of it, was the picture of an elderly sari-clad woman. She was gripping the elbow of a young woman, both smiling, their eyes closed. In front of them was a magazine, and it would seem as though they saw something funny in it.

“A mother and daughter,” said a visitor, looking at the image. Cathy smiles and says, “Everyone says that. But no, it is a caregiver, Didi, with Ashwani, who is at an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease, at a day-care centre in Bangalore.” “It was such a joyous moment,” she says. “Whenever I look at the photo I feel happy. I want to spread this happiness. That is why it is on the back of my card,” says Cathy.

Pics: Cathy Greenblat
Pics: Cathy Greenblat

Cathy had come to Kochi as a guest speaker at ‘Ubodh’, a three-day international conference on Alzheimer’s Disease organised by the Centre for Neuroscience, under the department of Biotechnology, Cusat. She presented a photo exhibition called ‘Arts, Hearts and Minds’.Since 2001, Cathy has been documenting the story of people living with dementia across nine countries—India, USA, Japan, France, Britain, Dominican Republic, Germany, Monaco and Australia. She has met all kinds of interesting people along the way. 

At Silverado Escondido Memory Care Community, California,Cathy met a woman named Hilda who could hardly remember if she had lunch or what day it was. “When Hilda sat down at a piano, she could play at least 400 songs from her memory. Music stays for a really long time in our minds,” she says.  
At the facility, she realised that Alzheimer’s was not a condition that ended all hopes for a patient. “I saw patients who could read newspapers, do art and craft, have conversations, and dine with china, glasses and silverware on a table. It was different from my own experiences.”

When her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he was put into a residential community for people with dementia. “There, his only activity was to watch TV. He was a brilliant man who loved to read and talk. But they said he couldn’t do all that anymore. Later, my grandmother and mother fought the same disease. People think that Alzheimer’s takes a big bite out of your brain. But it is more like a mouse nibbling on a big slice of cheese. You lose your capabilities bit by bit. Our job is to look for what’s remaining. I wanted to help change this mindset by photographing the best examples of dementia care,” she says.

In 2008, Cathy spent three weeks taking photographs at the Neighbourhood Network of Palliative Care in Kozhikode, run by Suresh K Kumar, for a project on end of life care. There, she met Dr Jacob Roy, the founder of  Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India. “I went to Kunnamkulam, where Jacob had put up his first care home for Alzheimer’s patients in Kerala. There were about 10 or 12 residents and I took several pictures,” she says.  

When asked if patients react similarily across all the countries she works in, Cathy says, “Yes, they do. They need to feel cared for and want to be treated like they are worthy. They want to do things that are meaningful to them, like going on excursions. In one of the homes, some of the men would be taken to a local pool. They seemed to enjoy a game of pool ball and chilling with a beer in hand.”   

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