Photographs and lost memories…

One picture is worth a thousand words, as the centuries-old adage goes, but not in the vanishing mind of someone with Alzheimer’s. As this treacherous disease advances, simple things, like photographs or written words that would ordinarily jog a person’s memory, present an insurmountable obstacle to an Alzheimer’s sufferer and their loved ones. I pulled up the photo in this post and remembered, feeling blessed that I was able to do so, silently praying that I always will. Still, I was sad that the person holding me those many years ago recognized herself but had absolutely no idea who was in her arms when she looked at the photograph.

As she progressed through Alzheimer’s stages, the basic daily repertoire with my late mother always involved the same questions, asking her if she knew the various faces from family photo albums, mainly mine. The answers varied but never reflected anyone in her present life, only people from her past. The saddest of all were her responses to my baby pictures which brought no recognition on her part, not even mistakenly identifying me with some other relative or acquaintance.

Reality set in quite abruptly for me after my mother was found wandering in the middle of a cold winter’s night and I promptly moved her from her apartment to my home. The process of emptying her home then began and I noted that none of the disorder which surrounds many dementia patients was evident or had been. As it always was, her apartment was neat and clean, everything in its place. Everything, that is, except photographs.

That first day, as I sat in on the floor of her bedroom, in the middle of a pile of her fading memories, I realized that I had never really taken notice that the collection of framed pictures which had been sitting on her shelves, tables and in her bedroom were all gone. Just when they all disappeared escaped me, but it was not unusual for her to periodically move things around when she cleaned. I immediately started going through closets and drawers, moving years of accumulation and suddenly came across shopping bags, stuffed into a corner with frames sticking out. There were the photographs of her family; her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all put away because she simply did not know who any of these people were anymore; I was at least thankful that she did not throw them all into the trash.

In the piles of forgotten faces, I was amazed that old photos of my parents taken years before their bitter divorce were saved. Pictures I had seen countless times before now were minus my father as my mother had systematically cut him out of most of them. Of course, I later questioned her on this and asked her what happened to my father. Her response? Oh, he was killed in the war. Good riddance! My father, in fact, had died in 1992 from complications of Scleroderma.

Photographs may well indeed be our memory holders and each picture can be the key to unlocking those memories. Sometimes, that is. Where someone with memory loss is concerned, photos do not always help to keep the afflicted person anchored in the moment and stop memories from running away. It’s definitely a wonderful thing if you can travel back consistently through someone’s life story but Alzheimer’s is so cruelly subjective in how those suffering with the disease react to its rampage with waves of fleeting memories which suddenly surface then quickly disappear.

Aside from some of the more promising data involving Alzheimer’s/Dementia, certain things might cause a memory spark but, more often, trigger a negative and very combative response. Of that, I can speak with great authority as the mystery baby being held in this photo; the memories live on still, eighteen years after my mother’s passing.

From the Writer’s Workshop…Share an old photo and let it inspire a blog post.