Faces of Alzheimer’s: Driving Awareness Through Photos

Photographer Diane Beals started her “Faces of Alzheimer’s” project after her father was diagnosed with the disease. Working with the Alzheimer’s Network of Oregon, she takes portraits of patients, with remarkable results — family members often tell her, “You captured something I haven’t seen in a while.” We talked to Diane about her photography, the experience of losing her father as a result of the disease, and what’s next for her project.

Faces of Alzheimer's: Driving Awareness Through Photos

Personal Healing Through Art

Diane had a portrait photography studio in Salem, OR for 12 years. “In the last three years,” she says, “my focus has been more on documentary photography. The folks at the Alzheimer’s Network of Oregon asked me, Would you like to do this for us? At that point, my dad had been diagnosed, and I thought, well, this will be a great opportunity to learn about the disease. It just kinda came at the right time.”

Faces of Alzheimer's by Diane Beals

Her father, LeRoy Beals, was diagnosed six years ago, and took his own life a year and a half ago. “He kept saying over and over, “It’s not going to get any better, is it?” and me, my mom and my three siblings would tell him, “No it’s not.” He had a nine-to-five job as a plumber, and he was a farmer as well, hopping on off the tractor and sometimes working 20-hour days. He loved to work. But it got to the point where I called him over to fix a toilet, left the house for a while, and when I got back the whole toilet was taken apart on the floor—he couldn’t remember why he was taking it apart. He was just done. You may be able to deal successfully with a lot of emotions in life, but until you have that news [that you have Alzheimer’s] delivered to you, who knows how you’ll deal with it?”

Faces of Alzheimer's by Diane Beals

After her father’s death, Diane stopped work on Faces of Alzheimer’s for a time, but eventually decided to continue the project. The Alzheimer’s Network of Oregon is the primary Alzheimer’s organization in a number of counties, and Beals spent three months snapping portraits at five memory care facilities in the region. Every spring, the organization hosts their annual fundraiser, and last month, the event was decorated with Beals’ 16″ x 20″ portraits hanging on the walls.

The Power of Persistence

When we asked her what the process like, going into these care facilities, Beals said, “You’re on their schedule. They’re either having a good day or having a bad day, and you have to catch them on a good day. In a lot of cases, they’ve turned childlike. One part that I think is interesting is that they’ll make up a story, and it’s not true, but then I’ll have to come back five or six time in order to catch them on the right day, and that story they told me will be the same. They’ve forgotten so much, but whatever story they’ve made up, they stick to it. Almost word for word.”

Faces of Alzheimer's by Diane Beals

Beals went on to describe how there are exceptions—what turns out to be the best portrait isn’t always one that’s planned. “In one case, the lady I was there to photograph couldn’t find her lipstick, and she was so angry and crying, and I said, Don’t worry, I’ll come back another time. When she turned and hugged her husband, I took a picture. And that turned out to be the best photo (even though I did come back the next day, when she had found her lipstick). I take my hat off to the people who work at those care facilities. They’re so patient and do such good work. It’s like herding cats, or like making frosted cookies with preschool kids—you end up with frosting all over faces while the cookies remain blank.”

After the fundraiser, Diane delivers the photos back to the facilities and the residents, and family members take them home. Faces of Alzheimer’s was a huge success, and there are more faces to come. “The Alzheimer’s Network fundraiser is an annual thing,” says Beals, “and they’ve asked me for next year.”

Faces of Alzheimer's by Diane Beals

You can learn more about Diane Beals and see some of her photography at bealsfoto.com.

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