I usually photograph people who are strangers, and in places away from home. I take photographs of friends and family only from time to time. But since I photograph that which touches me – and of course friends and family do exactly this – it may be time to consider photographing the people I love, more often.
Almost four weeks ago I arrived in Florida to spend 2.5 months with my parents – specifically to help my mum take care of my dad and to help her around the house. She turns 87 tomorrow; as will my father, in six months. I have written about them in my blog before. Since we live far apart (I live in the Boston area and my parents live in Canada), every time I see them I realize how they have aged. It is strange, almost surreal, to be taking care of someone who once was your care-taker. Doing just that, this year and last, has made my admiration and love for them change and grow.
It was about ten years ago that my mum noticed small, subtle changes in my dad’s behaviour – short-term memory loss and moments of confusion. He continued to decline in slow intervals. Even though he has never been diagnosed, based on the various dementia descriptions on the Mayo Clinic and NIH sites, my sister, mum, and I have figured out that he has had multiple “mini” strokes (confirmed by his doctor) and (probably) has vascular dementia. No matter, it gave us comfort to put a name to what was/is going on with his memory. His decline is slow but steady. There are physical changes, and loss of the interests and personality he once had.
My mum suffers the most from this situation, although she will deny this. It is not unusual to hear that the caregiver is the one who fails in a more critical way because of stress. I have seen my mum age quickly and her friends have made note of this, too. It is all due to her hard work and great worries this past decade. Day in and day out she spends her time loving, ministering to, and monitoring my dad. This wears her down far more than she is willing to admit.
Living with them in Florida is my little way of giving my mother a breather and enabling them to escape the snow, ice, and frigid temperatures of Montreal (it is also a way to give my sister a break – she is the one who is there for them the rest of the year – and for that I am truly grateful). I drive them around and do whatever I can. Most of my time is spent with my dad. I don’t dress or shave him (he is still capable of doing both although he needs a little help at times), but I look after his mental well-being. This helps structure his life so that he does not constantly sleep or binge-eat – as is his wont. When we play scrabble, somehow his mind is fairly clear; this is the one intellectual activity that still really works for him. When we’re together, we play five, six, seven games a day.
After three weeks of this I must say that I am exhausted each night. With this experience, I worry even more about my mum – much more than I worry about my dad who, with good and bad days, remains in good humour despite awareness of his own disconnectedness and decline (which he pokes fun at).
My mum is a fiercely independent woman. She makes sure that I (and my sister who lives in Montreal) respect her independence while we remain supportive and ready to help her manage. My mother is a strong and intelligent woman; she’s also sad, angry, nervous, and stressed. She’s angry with herself, angry with my dad, and angry with aging, to a certain extent. But she still laughs because my dad can still make her do so. She is in pretty good shape and her head is “mostly working” (as she likes to say). My father, in his simplified condition, has faced aging differently. He goes with the flow and is content to be alive. He has always embraced life and is mostly good humoured. When he is not, it is largely due to his illness and in reaction to being pushed to do something he does not want to do.
I am very aware that I am still an intruder, of sorts, in their lives, and that taking pictures of them makes me more of one. But with these photographs I hope that I am able to capture my parents and their relationship with one another.
The three of us live under the same small roof 24 hours a day. The photographs I have taken of them in the last few years are not many – partially because my mother does not want to be the center of attention. But! I realize it is critical to capture them before they are lost to me, before this chapter of our lives together ends. I am fortunate to have this period with my parents – seeing them love and care for each other or even get frustrated with one another. For me, it is all about watching their changing relationship and appreciating that as well as valuing my relationship with them.
Addendum: Out of respect to my mum (per her request), I have aborted this project.