Hand in hand: Couple fights Alzheimer's together

Story highlights

  • Allison Hess documented a married couple in Nebraska both living with Alzheimer's
  • Ward and Eloise Hill are in a memory care facility; they've been married for 68 years

(CNN)Ward and Eloise Hill first met in 1945 with a handshake in college. Now they hold hands at a memory care facility as Alzheimer's disease threatens to take away the memories they share after 68 years of marriage.

Photographer Allison Hess discovered their heartbreaking yet inspiring story in Lincoln, Nebraska. The quest to document and show day-to-day life for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's hit close to home for her.
"This project sprang from personal experiences that I had with my grandmother after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease," Hess said. "Ward and Eloise's story touched my heart and I decided to focus my photographs specifically on them."
    Ward was diagnosed with Alzheimer's two years ago, and Eloise was diagnosed sometime after. Hess met the couple and started documenting their life in the memory care facility in November.
    Both of them would occasionally forget who Hess was when she came to visit, so they would often repeat things they already told her. Hess came to realize that the repeated topics brought up in conversation while they talked were the most important to them.
    Photographer Allison Hess
    Eloise told Hess stories about her life with Ward in great detail. She said she knew when she met Ward that she was going to marry him, and it was love at first sight. That love has created the bond that everyone associates with them.
    "After spending time with them, I began to notice that people rarely said only one of their names when addressing them," Hess said of the couple. "I think that this is very representative of their relationship. The love that they have for each other is immediately apparent upon meeting them. I would say that their interaction is, more than anything, extremely honest."
    Over the last nine months that Hess spent with them, Ward's brief yet frequent memory lapses have even included not being able to recognize his wife. But he always relies on holding her hand or quietly whispering questions in her ear when he is confused.
    Even though the two are incredibly close, Hess observed and documented the differences in their personalities. She said they were both caring, but in different ways. If Hess ever needed to kneel while taking a photograph, Ward -- ever the gentleman -- would try to give up his seat so that she would have a chair to sit in.
    "Eloise, on the other hand, is extremely kindhearted but is not afraid to give her opinion about something," Hess said. "Because her husband's condition is worse than hers, I also feel that she is incredibly strong."

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    Initially, Eloise didn't want either of them to be moved into the facility. But she also realized that they needed the help provided by personal caretakers and others at the facility just to help with their daily tasks. Hess was often moved by the love and respect shown by employees to residents.
    While documenting their story, Hess was an observer of the good days as well as the bad. One time she visited after Ward had a bad fall. Eloise was stressed about him and didn't recall Hess, but they sat and talked about her life, where she and Ward had lived and what they had done over the course of their lives.
    "Sitting with her, I felt like I was sitting with my own grandmother," Hess said. "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."
    Hess opted to photograph the couple in black and white because she believes that Alzheimer's is anything but that, and she chose the moments she photographed to represent the complexities presented by the disease.
    Her interest in photography came from her grandfather, who kept detailed scrapbooks containing photographs and mementos representing his entire life. Hess realized that stories could be told through images rather than words and now aims to use her camera to show the lives of others. She hopes that her images of Eloise and Ward will help people to better understand the realities facing those who are living with Alzheimer's.
    "After spending time with Ward, Eloise and others that live in this memory care facility, it is clear to me that those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's should be treated with compassion, but not in a way that is shameful," Hess said. "They deserve just as much respect as you or me.
    "I think it's important to realize that when you know someone who has been diagnosed, that you have to try to live in their reality just as much as yours. When looking at my photographs, I would like people to consider what they might have in common with Ward and Eloise, rather than what sets them apart."