Putting a New Face on Alzheimer’s

alive with alzheimers cathy greenblat

When Cathy Greenblat was in her 20s, her grandmother and grandfather had Alzheimer’s. “I bought society’s message that nothing could be done but keep them safe,” she says. Years later, when Greenblat’s mother developed the disease, she realized that lots more could be done.

The former Rutgers University sociology professor began to see Alzheimer’s through a different lens – her camera – when her mother was in a memory care facility. Greenblat saw quality care in a place brimming with “music, art, discussions about news, smiles, touch and gentleness that changed the quality of life for the residents,” she says.

Her mission was “to show what it is like to keep your dignity when you have Alzheimer’s,” says Greenblat. For more than a decade, she’s traveled around the world taking photos of people with dementia. The self-taught photographer has taken pictures in private homes, memory clinics, residential facilities, memory clinics and adult day centers. The people are often with loved ones, often smiling and giggling.

“There aren’t many books with Alzheimer’s photos and most are of people looking miserable and showing loss. Losses are real, but they’re not the whole story,” she says.

In 2004, the California-based Greenblat published her first photography book Alive With Alzheimer’s. Last year, Greenblat, 73, put out Love, Loss, and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently. It, too, is a coffee table book with photos and text that show the rewards of quality Alzheimer’s care.

Along with the book, Greenblat created a photography exhibition – the largest collection of Alzheimer’s faces anywhere – that is making its way around the globe.

The exhibit was in New York earlier this year, and has made the rounds in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Glasgow, Scotland, Geneva and Salamanca. It is in Australia for the next seven months.

Greenblat’s takeaway from her research and travels is that “We give up too soon. We can’t cure the disease, but there are things we can do that bring people with Alzheimer’s joy up until the very last minute.”

Dementia treatment has evolved over the last few decades. I’m fascinated by the transformative power of the creative arts and have written several articles on innovative programs. They involve dance, singing, playwriting and acting, making music, movies, museum education, storytelling and poetry. Perhaps my favorite is the memory care facility which has a “resident” llama that visits elders in their room. (For more programs, visit the National Center for Creative Aging.)

Back to Greenblat. Her work is important! Look for the exhibit to land back in this country. In the meantime, her book shows a different vision of Alzheimer’s – and what is possible.

Photograph courtesy of Cathy Greenblat

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