How Photographing His Mother’s Dementia Made Her Feel Alive Again

When artist Tony Luciani’s 91-year-old mother, Elia, moved in with him in 2014, he thought he was doing her a service. It turned out that it was the other way around.

Elia was having issues with memory loss and having a hard time accepting her age. She looked defeated. Tony tried to make her as comfortable as possible, but when he was at his easel painting, he would peek over and see her staring into space. He’d watch her slowly climb the stairs, and couldn’t help but notice that she wasn’t the mom he grew up with — she was a frail, tiny, old woman.

A few weeks went by, and Tony needed a break from painting. He wanted to play with the new camera he had just purchased. He set up his tripod facing a large mirror, blocking the doorway to the only bathroom in the house. Tony’s mother ended up being the subject of many of his photos as she walked by and posed for the camera. The spontaneous images that resulted sparked a years-long collaboration with Tony documenting his mom’s life and spirit as she lived with dementia.

Recently, Tony participated in TED talks, where he shared the stories behind some of their favorite shots, capturing the joy and grief of caring for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s.

The Camera Helped Elia Express Herself

Tony continued to practice his newfound camera skills with his mother as a portrait model. While posing for the photos and looking at them afterwards, she talked and he listened. She’d tell him about her early childhood and how she was feeling now. She was losing her short-term memory, but seemed to be better recalling her younger years, which happens often to people with Alzheimer’s snd other forms of dementia. Through photographs, Tony and his mother had something tangible they could do together. According to Tony, “(m)om loved the process. She felt worthy again, she felt wanted and needed. And she certainly wasn’t camera-shy.”

Tony recalls one of the most poignant photos he He referred to it as the “silent scream” and it depicted the frustration and sadness for everyone involved with caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. He remembers his mom saying that day, “(w)hy is my head so full of things to say, but before they reach my mouth, I forget what they are?”

When Tony’s Mom Became the Photographer

Tony’s mom wasn’t just a muse… she took on the role of photographer herself. He gave his mother a project to do, to keep her busy and thinking. He provided her with a small camera and asked her to take at least 10 pictures a day of anything she wanted. She had never held a camera in her life before that. They would sit down together and talk about their work. Tony would discuss the meaning, the feeling, and why they were relevant. His mom, on the other hand, would just bluntly say, “sì,” “no,” “bella” or “bruta.” He set up a Facebook page for her and posted her work proudly, entered her into some competitions and her work was featured several times as best of black and white on Inspire Magazine. From April to June 2015, 17 of Elia’s beautiful images stood out on the walls of a store where they resided, in Durham, Canada.

As her Alzheimer’s Got Worse, the Pictures Stopped

As her condition worsened, it became unsafe for Tony’s mother to live with him in his house and she had to be moved to memory care. She didn’t know his name anymore, but she still recognized his face and always had a big smile when she saw him.

He stopped taking pictures of her because he felt that it wouldn’t be fair or ethical to continue to do so. Plus, she wouldn’t understand the reasons for doing them anymore.

What Tony Learned from His Experience 

For Tony, being a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer’s was about being present and really listening, and he learned that through the photography he and his mother did together. He said, “(d)ependents want to feel a part of something, anything. It doesn’t need to be something exceptionally profound that’s shared — it could be as simple as walks together. Give them a voice of interaction, participation, and a feeling of belonging. Make the time meaningful. Life, it’s about wanting to live and not waiting to die.” ‪

Check out Tony Luciani’s photographs of his mother here.

Can Photography Help Seniors with Alzheimer’s?

Do you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? Studies have shown that images and visual representations help exercise seniors’ memory skills snd strengthening their ability to remember.

Health Benefits of Photography

Photography is many things—an art, hobby, passion, creative outlet, and professional work. The creative use of photography can also help seniors with dementia. Here’s how:

Promotes Mindfulness:  Mindfulness refers to the state of being present in the “now.” There are many forms of mindfulness activities, and photography is one of them. The act of taking photos and focusing on a particular moment is already a mindfulness exercise on its own. Engaging in photography helps Alzheimer’s patients strengthen their ability to focus, drive their creativity, and prompt their appreciation for life.

Improves Social Interaction: Constant communication and social interaction are essential for everyone, including seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Photography helps seniors stay social and improve their community interaction by having a new hobby that they can share with others, attending classes and programs about photography and meeting others, and bonding with loved ones over this new interest. Having conversations, sharing your passion, and discussing photography with others is a form of exercise for the brain. It also boosts self-esteem as well as one’s feeling of belonging.

Increases Brain Activity: Engaging in photography keeps the brain active and enhances cognitive functions, including memory. Photos and pictures also help stimulate memories through image association. Looking at pictures helps seniors remember a specific memory or feelings attached to it. This gets their brain working and thinking, while also reminiscing the good moments. Photography can also be an excellent form of therapy for those having a hard time doing traditional therapeutic techniques.

Planning for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s

Do you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? Consider introducing a new hobby or skill, such as photography, for the reasons described above, and spend quality time with them. These small acts—when done consistently and with love—will be beneficial for them and for you!

Also, be sure to plan in advance. Persons with Alzheimer’s disease and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from Alzheimer’s and their loved ones. As Life Care Planning and Medicaid Planning Attorneys in Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Rockville, and DC, we help protect a family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If your family is facing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Medicaid Planning Attorney Fairfax, VA: 703-691-1888
Medicaid Planning Attorney Fredericksburg, VA: 540-479-1435
Medicaid Planning Attorney Rockville, MD: 301-519-8041
Medicaid Planning Attorney Washington, DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.