A photographic treatment for people with dementia

"Photographic Treatment" was conducted in collaboration with neurologists, gerontologists and psychologists to provide an image-based therapeutic tool for dementia patients.

Story highlights

  • Up to half of people 85 or older might have some form of dementia
  • Talking about photographs may offer dementia patients and their loved ones ways to connect and engage

(CNN)One of the first dementia patients Laurence Aëgerter met was in the later stages of the illness. She visited the man at a care facility in Switzerland to note his reactions to photographs she had brought along. As she showed him pictures and asked him to remark on them, he fluttered in and out of awareness, like a lamp flickering on and off, she said. For 10 minutes, the patient hardly said anything, struggling to articulate basic sentences.

Then, Aëgerter showed him a photograph of a cat with her kitten, and something amazing happened.
"He was able to speak for five minutes in a row," said Aëgerter, a French visual artist based in Amsterdam. "That image triggered something very deep in him, a very deep memory that made him feel so strong. In those minutes, it was like he had no disease at all."
    The photographs Aëgerter brought to show the dementia patient were part of the early stages of a project she calls "Photographic Treatment." The premise was simple: Improve the quality of life of elderly people with dementia by staging "photo interventions." They're individual or group sessions that focus conversations on images she curated over the span of three years.
    The photos are available as diptychs in a book series, on top of wooden blocks and by free download from the project's website. In June, the book series received the Author Book Award in July at the Recontres D'Arles, a prestigious international photography festival.
    An elderly woman looks at a "Photographic Treatment" book and describes and compares what she sees. The pairing "raises for me the question of function and aesthetics of geometry and why it is attractive to look at repetitive patterns -- because we find geometry highly aesthetic," creator Laurence Aëgerter said.
    Aëgerter undertook the project in 2015 to add levity and humor -- through unexpected pairings, like the face of a child next to one of a seal -- to the lives of patients with dementia and Alzheimer's as well as their families. According to the Alzheimer's Association, up to 40% of people with the disease struggle with "significant depression." And too often, Aëgerter said, dementia patients are infantilized by caretakers and family members, which can add to their frustration and sadness.
    "Sometimes, people don't know what's possible and what's not possible, and that makes them very cautious," she said of family members and caretakers. "I realized we should never underestimate people who are sick."

    Reconnecting with people with dementia

    Dementia is a broad term for a loss of cognitive abilities, such as thinking, remembering and reasoning, that interfere with one's life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for roughly 60% to 80% of dementia cases. According to the National Institute on Aging, up to half of people 85 or older might have some form of dementia.
    So why did the man Aëgerter visited have such a strong reaction to the image of the kitten and its mother? He might have connected it with a memory from his childhood and early adolescence. Researchers call this phenomenon, in which elderly people recall events that occurred when they were 15 to 25 years old, the reminiscence bump.
    The similarity between these images lies in the curvature of the playground slide and the flamingo's neck. The slide is evocative of universal childhood memories, and the pairing may play with the idea of scale, Aëgerter said. "We have all been down such a tube, but none of us have been down a flamingo," she said, but a flea might travel down a flamingo's neck the way a child slides down a slide.
    Frans Hoogeveen, a lecturer in psychogeriatrics at the Haagse Hogeschool and one of the scientific advisers for "Photographic Treatment," said that this phenomenon is seen in all elderly people but that it is augmented for those with dementia due to the simultaneous loss of their short-term memory. Failure has been shown to increase stress levels and decrease the overall well-being of those with dementia, so questions based on recollection can often set dementia patients up for failure, Hoogeveen said.
    "A mistake often made by spouses of people of dementia is asking them things they cannot reply to because of their illness," he said. Asking about a party that happened a day ago, for example, would rely on a person's memory and would not be a good question, he added.
    Because of these limitations, people might not know where to begin when trying to engage and connect with those with dementia, said Ruth Drew, director of information and support services at the Alzheimer's Association. Activities such as discussing a photograph can help both patients and their family members, she said.
    "Using these photographs may also help the person who wants to connect with a family member with Alzheimer's to have a jumping-off point that can help engage that person," she said.
    The visual similarity between the men's heads and the arms of the cactus, as well as the absurd thought of hugging a cactus, might bring humor to a comparison of this pair, Aëgerter said. On a deeper level, though, the pictures might imply a conversation about friendship and intimacy. "Friendship, even the deepest friendship, is something so challenging, because you can't love without feeling irritation and frustration and displeasure," Aëgerter said. "There is also for me this kind of deep wish that it would be possible to be always be in this empathetic cuddle, in this fusional intricate experience of the other, of the sharing, of the loving and caring, and that there will never come that level of irritation of problem or things that come in between, that would be what the cactus made me think of."