Love, Loss and Laugher: Visions of Alzheimer’s

The work of the sociologist –photographer Cathy Greenblat  has aimed to show the ‘active’ nature of Alzheimer’s across the world; and how ‘good care’ can be crucial in creating situations to enable a better life for people with Alzheimer’s.  As she remarks:

As a social scientist, I know how much expectations influence achievement, and I strongly believe that diminished expectations for people living with Alzheimer’s contribute to their disabilities. If we can change the hearts and minds of people who think Alzheimer’s patients have left us long before their physical deaths, it will help us all achieve our vision of a better life for those living with the disease today

Cathy was trained as a sociologist and for some thirty years was a full Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. During the 1980’s she took up an interest in photography and the visual and when she retired she turned to this  and to some extent has left sociology behind – she dislikes its verbiage and pompous distancing through theory and concepts. She despairs of its endless citations. And she turned to the visual and the direct and photography. Her   research work started after she had personal experiences of Alzheimer’s in her own family, and it has taken her to many care homes and Alzheimer’s facilities around the world. At first she found the research very difficult to do– people would not talk to her, she felt clumsy and so on. But slowly she came to realise that many people with Alzheimer’s come to inhabit new and active worlds.  The prime tool of her research is photography, and through her imagery she wants to make audiences challenge “the mindset that writes off people with Alzheimer’s as “empty shells,” lost to themselves and others”

Her work shows the significance of using images and powerful quotations that create empathy and understanding and provoke concern. She challenges conventional modes of sociological presentation – her books are full of photos accessible to wider audiences, and she travels the world with exhbitions of photos for all to see. (She has had Exhibitions in Washington DC, Glasgow, Toronto, Nice, Madrid and Salamanca.)

Her new book, Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently (2012) can be seen as a ‘beautiful coffee table book’ rather than a sociology tract. The images are organised around critical themes in the life of a person with Alzheimer’s. It is striking that some of the chapters and images suggest ideas that really do not sit easily with common sense images of Alzheimer’s: here we find images of ‘Celebrating Life’, ‘Maintaining Capacities’ ‘Increasing Confidence and Connection’,’ Creating Partnerships’ – as well as improving memory, playing music, enjoying art.  The photographs are full of kindness, joy and laughter. In all this, we are a long way from the conventional sad and solitary imagery of Alzheimer’s.  Here a new world of ‘laughter and love’ can be sensed.  Cathy writes that my photographs:

show people with Alzheimer’s from diverse socio-economic backgrounds living meaningful lives at every stage of the disease: engaging with friends, loved ones, and caregivers; visiting art museums; singing and playing musical instruments; preparing meals; getting dressed up for a day on the town; interacting with pets; or simply enjoying a serene moment of contemplation.

She notes in the book,

“Person-centered care can diminish depression, apathy, agitation, frustration, anger, and guilt for those who suffer—and for their caregivers. Keeping tasks simple and maintaining and enhancing the capacities that remain are essential. And the payoff is love and laughter.”

Alongside the photos, there are short (usually inspirational) texts (she believes viewers of photos are helped by text) where she provides quotes from care workers of all kinds – as well as people living with dementia diagnoses.

In some ways we can see here a sociologist disillusioned with the direction of her discipline. When she retired from her full professorship, she decided to never again write in the typical mode of sociologists, believing that the visual is crucial to grasping an understanding of social life. She took these photographs over ten years in homes, clinics, day centres, and residential care as she travelled the world. Her images come from the United States, Canada, Japan, France, India, Monaco and the Dominican Republic and suggest common universals problems and solutions. Although she no longer works in the conventional modes of many sociologists, she does not reject the significance of sociological insight. Indeed, her research demonstrates just how important a sociological imagination can be in helping us understand and respond to this growing world health issue. Her work can be seen as a dynamic way of doing sociology and as part of a growing global movement to reform the care of people living with Alzheimer’s and related disorders

See: Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently (2012) and the web site that comes with it at: Greenblatt

And her commentary at:

See also: The Global Voice of Dementia : Alzheimers Disease International



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