Photography Can Be Great Hobby and Memory Recorder for Those with Dementia

Patient Expert

I was just reading an informative article in USA Today that focused on Bob and Carol Blackwell. Bob was diagnosed four years ago Alzheimer's while Carol has stepped into the caregiving role. They recently participated in the Alzheimer's Association's effort to advocate for awareness and funding to fight the disease from members of the U.S. Congress. In addition, the Blackwells write a regular blog for USA Today. I was especially drawn to the article because of Bob's active pursuit of his hobby, nature photography. He's progressed in his level of skill to the point where he's selling photos at a local arts and crafts show.

Bob's focus on photography got me thinking about Alzheimer's and photography. Could photography (which focuses the mind on a single subject) be used to aid people with Alzheimer's?

I did a quick Google search to see what I could come up with and found a Smithsonian Photography Initiative write-up by psychologist Jeff Sandoz about the use of photograph in one Alzheimer's patient's case. Dr. H., a retired physician and octogenarian, suffered a stroke causing his mental capacity to begin diminishing. Recognizing the symptoms he was experiencing, Dr. H made a self-diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease that was confirmed by his family physician. When Dr. H could no longer on his own, his children helped him move to a nursing home.

Once at the nursing home, Dr. H. read medical journals in order to learn more about Alzheimer's disease. He also focused on creating techniques that would help him use his memory.  One of the techniques involved using photographs as memory retention devices. Sandoz wrote, "On the wall above the roll-top desk in his room hung a series of framed photographs representing members of his extended family members across four generations. Each photograph was labeled with the name of the person or persons depicted, describing their specific relationship to him. Every day, he reviewed pictures of family, friends, and fellow residents in the nursing home. Sometimes, if he had things that he wanted to say or communicate with them, he would note that on the backs of the photographs, as a reminder. When visitors dropped by, Dr. H. would often tell them stories about his relatives in the labeled pictures on display."

The retired physician also actively used photography to help him maintain his bearings in life. He had a camera, film and a photo album at the nursing home.  "He was observed taking pictures of others frequently," Sandoz stated. "After the pictures were developed, he would label each one with the subject's name and indicate that person's relationship to him."

Dr. H. would look over the photographs and the descriptions daily. The photos of other residents were placed into an annotated nursing home floor plan in the photo album. This album provided the map that would help Dr. H. remember the nursing home features as well as the other residents. "During the day, if he saw someone whom he did not recall, he would refer to his album in order to refresh his memory," Sandoz said. "If he had no photographs of that person, he would take one and label it for future reference. Whenever necessary, he changed information on the photographs to reflect residents' current status."

Dr. H. also kept extensive notes about his time in the nursing home, recording the meals he ate, activities in which he participated, and visitors. All of these techniques helped him maintain some function memory until the last three months of his life.

Sandoz's narrative raises an interesting possibility for those dealing with Alzheimer's disease. Perhaps a camera, a notepad, and pencil can, when combined with strong determination, help slow the fading of memory. If I am ever diagnosed with this disease, I think that I'd embrace Dr. H's self-prescribed regime.