I can remember when my grandmother first began showing signs of dementia. I’d never seen anything like it before—watching someone I thought I knew become someone else. It took us a long time to adapt to relating to her in a new way, but through the experience we also learned how to love her even more. We also discovered a supportive community of families affected by dementia who understood the challenges firsthand, and how hard it could be to talk about.
When I came across a photo essay about an elderly married couple who’d both been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the story immediately drew me in. I related to its message—the possibility for loved ones to rise above the depths that dementia brings with it.
Photographer Alison Hess had already witnessed her own grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s when she met Ward and Eloise, the loving couple living at a nursing home in Nebraska. She felt an immediate connection to them, and decided to document their journey with Alzheimer’s through photography. The resulting story and photo essay, “Hand in Hand,” offers a moving glimpse into the complexities of the disease, and the lives of those it touches. The work also suggests some valuable takeaways that may help others navigate similar situations.
Lessons from Living with Alzheimer’s, Hand-in-Hand
Family members and caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s will relate to Hess’s images of Eloise and Ward’s daily life. Their story provides us with space to reflect on our own personal experiences with the disease, along with some gentle guidance on handling the situation with grace and respect.
Embrace the Times Your Loved One Is Themselves
While it’s natural to focus on the changes you see in your loved one, drawing attention to the similarities that remain can help you maintain a sense of connection. Stay on the lookout for those special moments during the day when the disease seems to temporarily disappear.
This sweet exchange with Eloise is something Hess remembers particularly fondly: “Sitting with her, I felt like I was sitting with my own grandmother. Even more than that, I was just sitting with a person. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at this moment and time, between Eloise and I, was completely irrelevant. We were just two people having a conversation about her life, with Eloise remembering even small, arbitrary details. This moment sticks out in my mind because it showed me that even when one is diagnosed with an illness, it should not define them.”
Notice the Small Yet Meaningful Moments
Bringing mindfulness into your daily caregiver routine can help you to pay closer attention to smaller moments when your loved one is truly enjoying themselves. It might look like dancing together while making dinner, seeing your loved one laugh during their favorite TV show, or a contented sigh when you play a song before bed.
Touching moments appeared often to Hess when she started looking for them, like when she observed that Eloise’s husband Ward always tried to give her his seat if he saw she had nowhere to sit. Noticing these small instances of compassion can offer emotional relief, and give caregivers something hopeful to hang onto amid the challenges of Alzheimer’s.
Learn to Hear Your Loved One Through Their Illness
Being able to hear what your loved one might be trying to express can create a stronger bond between the two of you. When learning to communicate with someone with Alzheimer’s, it takes an open mind and a lot of acceptance. Hess saw that even though Ward didn’t communicate using language, his physical actions—like holding Eloise’s hand—actually spoke volumes.
Their physical connection conveyed to others what he needed, and the trust that he felt with his wife— even when he didn’t fully remember her. This bond was witnessed firsthand by Hess, day after day, who notes, “Even though he may not always remember Eloise, Ward physically relies on her guidance, almost always holding his wife’s hand to navigate through his increasingly unfamiliar world.”
Local Alzheimer’s Resources in the Bay Area
Having access to local resources can offer strength and support to Alzheimer’s caregivers and family members. Fortunately, the Bay Area offers a wide range of services and programs that can help you cope better, and learn how to give more deeply and compassionately as a caregiver.
This program offers free consultations and counseling services to those seeking medical insurance for an aging loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Available in Alameda, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and more Bay Area counties, these support groups provide a safe space for caregivers to connect and communicate about their experiences with Alzheimer’s.
Based out of Stanford University, this multicultural center has numerous locations throughout the Bay Area and a friendly, multilingual staff to help Alzheimer’s caregivers navigate daily challenges.
This online website has a wealth of Alzheimer’s resources for caregivers, and features excellent Spanish translation. The site may be particularly helpful for Bay Area based caregivers seeking support and whose native language is Spanish.
Caring for an aging loved one with Alzheimer’s comes with multiple challenges that take time to accept and adapt to. Having your relationship with an aging loved one change so significantly is emotionally fatiguing in many ways. But if you’re able to rally support from friends and family members, you might find that the experience also teaches you lessons you could have never imagined.
Appreciating the special moments of connection with your loved one can feel gratifying, especially during a tough period. Learning to look at dementia from a different perspective can help caregivers see circumstances in a new light, and offer even more unconditional love, support, and compassion.
If you’re unsure how to better support your aging loved one with Alzheimer’s, Institute on Aging provides a range of services, programs, and online resources. Connect with us today to learn more.