Looking at Alzheimer’s Through a Different Lens

Posted June 6, 2012

Dr. Cathy Greenblat hasn’t always been a photographer, but she has always followed her heart. Before taking early retirement from Rutgers University, where she was a sociology professor for 35 years, she took a sabbatical in the spring of 2001 and made a decision that ultimately would change her life.

“I decided to work on a topic of social significance, and wanted to present my findings in a book that combined photographs and text in an equal partnership,” explains Greenblat. “But focusing on Alzheimer’s was the last thing on my mind.” She had lost both her maternal grandparents to Alzheimer’s and her mother was starting to show symptoms that were all too familiar. “I didn’t understand the disease,” says Greenblat. “I was frightened by it. And because I believed that my grandparents were no longer emotionally available, I stayed away from them more than I should have,” explains Greenblat. “I responded with the kind of fear and ignorance that is so common with Alzheimer’s.”

In 2001, Greenblat decided to photograph the elderly for her sabbatical project. She was living in Southern California for a few months and a geriatric psychiatrist acquaintance recommended she photograph residents at Silverado Senior Living, a residential care community for people with Alzheimer’s and related disorders. “I was too ashamed to tell her that I didn’t want to photograph Alzheimer’s patients,” admits Greenblat. “So I decided to visit for a few hours and then explain it wasn’t the place I was seeking.”

When Greenblat got to the facility, what she saw surprised her. Silverado was known for being the best Alzheimer’s care around, and Greenblat had never seen care like this. “They provide a stimulating environment instead of planting their patients in front of TVs and expecting nothing of them,” she says. “Silverado treats its patients with dignity and respect, and as a result I saw people here who were very vibrant and alive, despite their illness. They sometimes had a “lost” look that many of us are familiar with in Alzheimer’s patients, but the staff treated their patients like whole, valued people and re-engaged them with hugs, conversation, and a range of voluntary activities.”

Greenblat spent the next seven weeks photographing there and by doing so, she felt she eventually could help change others’ perceptions about what Alzheimer’s patients are capable of. “We can’t change the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, but we can change our minds about their capacities, and then change how we treat them. Good care like that shown in my photos and discussed in my text improves mood, increases confidence, builds self-esteem, enhances interest in life, and contributes to declines in negativity and aggressiveness.”

A different journey
When Greenblat’s mother’s symptoms started to get more severe, Greenblat had already faced her fears about Alzheimer’s and knew what to do. “Although my mom passed away six years ago, she had much better care than she would have had because of what I learned through my experience photographing people with Alzheimer’s.”

Greenblat reached out for advice from professionals, the growing body of literature, and people who had dealt with or were dealing with the issues. She didn’t try to go it alone. “Denial and fear often come from the fact that people think there is nothing you can do when a loved one is diagnosed, but that’s not true. I constantly get messages from people who say, ‘I’m so glad I saw your photos,’ or ‘I wish I had seen your book earlier because it showed me what’s possible for patients with Alzheimer’s. It’s much more than I realized.’ ”

Cure Alzheimer’s Fund
At one of her photography reviews, Greenblat met a physician who told her, “you need to get in touch with my husband’s aunt, Phyllis Rappaport,” one of the co-founders of Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. So Greenblat did. “That’s how I first learned about the organization and their mission.”

Greenblat will be showcasing some photos from her collection at the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Symposium in Boston on Oct. 10, 2012. “One day, there will be a cure, and Cure Alzheimer’s Fund is focused on finding one,” says Greenblat. “In the meantime, there is a lot we can do for those patients and families who are living with Alzheimer’s to reduce their burdens and improve their quality of life.”

Love, Loss, and Laughter
Greenblat’s first photography book, Alive with Alzheimer’s, came out in 2004 and her most recent book, Love, Loss, and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently, came out in March 2012. She is the author of 14 other books and more than 100 published journal articles. Since 2001, Greenblat has traveled the world to meet people living with Alzheimer’s and document their stories.

“There are so many people out there today who feel the way I once did—like they haven’t done enough for their loved ones. But hopefully, I’ve paid back some of my debt through my work and helped people learn how they can improve their connections and contributions to their loved ones who are living with Alzheimer’s or a related disorder.”