During my stay in Desert Hot Springs, California, I met Cathy Greenblat, Writer, Sociologist, and Photographer, through my husband’s work and game-based learning.
Since 2001, Cathy has been working to change the imagery of aging, illness and dying by combining her background as a Professor of Sociology with her photography.
Cathy’s body of work began at a municipal old age home in Mexico after she left her tenured full professorship to focus on work combining photographs and text.
I believe this to be the most effective vehicle to open people’s eyes, literally and figuratively, providing a better way to help them “face” issues that are generally avoided. Since then I have directed my energies to the creation of photographic projects that challenge stereotypical conceptions of the aged, the infirm, and those in the terminal stages of life.
I then documented a person-centered approach to Alzheimer’s care in the United States; those photographs and text appeared as a book in 2004, Alive with Alzheimer’s (University of Chicago Press). The German edition (Alzheimers und Lebensqualitat) was published in 2006 in conjunction with a three-year traveling exhibition in Germany. In recognition of that work, the University of Houston College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences awarded me the 2007 John P. McGovern Lectureship in Family, Health, and Human Values.
Cathy has continued to photograph Alzheimer's care in the USA, in France, India, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. These photographs were presented in exhibits and are now offered in her book, Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer's Differently (Globe Pequot, 2012).
In both forms, they offer an additional challenge to stereotypes about Alzheimer’s disease. They show that while the losses created by degenerative brain disease are real, people with Alzheimer’s are not, as they are often depicted, “empty shells”, completely lost. The photos show what quality healthcare looks like, and illustrate that such care allows people with Alzheimer’s disease to sustain connections to others and to their own past lives at a far higher level than is generally believed to be possible. The photographs reveal that they are capable of experiencing joy as well as sorrow, that loving care can yield loving responses and laughter.
My other project, undertaken between 2005 and 2008 focuses on end of life care. Exhibits from that project have been titled Alive at the End of Life, or Little Things with Great Love. The latter title comes from a statement by Mother Theresa "We cannot do great things, only little things with great love." This project is meant to provide insight into the ways the experience of dying can be enriched, both emotionally and intellectually, for the person who is dying and for those attached to him or her. We cannot do “the one great thing”, eliminate death, but I hope to show the important little things that are being done with great love by those who are engaged in the reconceptualization and reconstruction of the dying process.
As I have spoken with people with dementia, with cancer, and with AIDS and with their family members, I have seen how little prepared most of us are in terms of knowing what to do when death approaches, even when it has been coming on for some time due to a chronic illness. It is rare for people to make advance visits to places where palliative and end of life care is offered. If they visit at all, it is when someone is in need of immediate help, and then they are often so emotionally burdened that they are unable to observe and judge the quality of the services offered. I believe that my projects can help convey new information and insight to viewers not (yet) under such stress.
The photographs and accompanying text provide a symbolic journey through the dying process via the representation of everyday people whose lives and deaths have been eased by the best of programs. Because of the obstacles to overcome in viewing death, I believe that still photography is a better medium for this endeavor than is film; people need time to stop and reflect on the images, to deal with their emotions and thoughts at their own pace.
Much still remains to be done to increase both public awareness of the issues and to provide healthcare professionals with knowledge and training in dementia care and end of life care. I believe that photography can be an important tool in creating a new vision of what can be, of how to meet the growing need for quality care.
Professor Greenblat has been selected to have her work archived at the Bienecke Library at Yale University. It will be accessible in the Women in Photography International Archive, Western Americana Collection, and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Yale University.
Thank you Cathy for such wonderful and candid photos!