I Chose to Document the Final Months of My Grandparents’ Lives

I never set out to make this book nor did I have a plan for the images as I was making them. The photos were a way for me to process what was happening in front of me. This story is about my grandparents, it’s about loss, and it’s about dementia.

In early November 2018, I received a call that my grandmother’s health had taken a turn. Her 90-year-old body had begun to shut down. For 72 years, she cooked 3 meals a day for my grandfather but with a diagnosis of dementia, he was not able to care for her the way she needed. I effectively moved in with them immediately, spending 16+ hours a day as their primary caregiver, cooking meals, and coordinating their healthcare needs from sunup to sundown. Their care for me as a child had come full circle. I was now repaying them with the same tasks.

As a photographer, I had taken photos of them during visits and holidays since High School. The urgency to take the photos of the 2 people who had always been there for me was a natural decision. Most mornings I would arrive before they were awake and well before the sun was up. I would put coffee on for Papaw first thing, a task that Mamaw typically did each day. On days where Papaw would be up before I arrived, he would put the beans in with no filter which often left him spitting Folgers on to his newspaper and wondering what he did wrong.

Most days Papaw would keep to his routine of making countless trips to the garage to piddle around, looking out the windows continuously and playing his favorite game of cards, solitaire. The routine seems to have kept his progressive memory loss at bay. Often I would watch him look out the windows and wonder what he saw; I can only imagine it was a time machine for him and what was before him was a younger time, a 1950’s eutopia of kids playing and neighbors mowing their lawns.

Papaws window gazing became more frequent as Mamaw’s health began to suffer and our visits to the hospital increased. His dementia prevented his long-term memory to recall where she was when she wasn’t at home. This also lead to multiple trips to the hospital she would be admitted to because he would forget we had just gotten home from seeing her.

When Mamaw was home she did everything she could to get around and keep to her normal daily routine but she was tired. I would have to walk her from the bedroom to the living room each morning and again when she was ready to go to bed.

Mamaw had spent the majority of January in and out of a rehab facility. On Sunday morning, January 27, 2019, I received a call that Mamaw had passed. No warning. The days leading up to it she was sleeping a lot. Her body was tired of fighting. She was tired of fighting.

January 28, 2019, Papaw’s mental state became frantic. His mind was telling him something was gone but he never seemed certain that it was her. He spent an hour checking his daily paper, the date on the weather channel and the calendars that had been placed around the house. Eventually, he concluded that the calendars had not been replaced from 2018 and asked me to get him a new one. I hurried to the store. He returned to his paper for the date and stood in front of the newly hung calendar. He grabbed a pen and scribbled ‘HeRE’ on January 28th. I asked him why he wrote ‘here’. He tapped the pen, almost in tears, and mumbled, “Here. That’s where I’m at.”

Leading up to the funeral he asked where she was several times a day. We began to write notes and sit them on the table next to his chair for him to see as he walked past. When the obituary was published we cut it out for him to read, hoping he wouldn’t forget this time. Once she was laid to rest, this routine continued, of constantly inquiring where she was. On some days, he would think she was with a friend grocery shopping, a friend who had passed decades prior; or that she was down in Westmoreland, Tennessee visiting family, expecting she’d be back before dark. It became increasingly hard to correct him because not only was he hearing it like it was the first time, but we had to relive it with him.

As the weeks and months passed, he became very tired. His routine of looking out the window was like clockwork. Except now he knew he was looking for her. She wasn’t in her normal seat and in his mind that meant she’d be home soon. He was eating less, talking less, and lost interest in playing his favorite game of solitaire, but he never stopped asking about her.

Eventually, the absent memory of his wife of 72 years took a toll on his health. He knew something was missing, he remembered her, but he could not connect the dots. After several fainting spells, he was admitted to the hospital.

I received a phone call that Papaw was having trouble breathing. It was a rainy day and on the way to visit him I saw a sign that said ‘SMILE’ with rain rolling down my window, I took a quick photo from the road. I knew it was going to be the last time I was able to visit him. When I arrived at his room, he was hooked up to machines. He tried to tell me to get his pants and shirt, that I was taking him home. Even through the torment of his mind, he had a way of making us laugh, sometimes unintentionally. I talked to him about Mamaw, that she was in Westmoreland but that she wasn’t coming home, and he nodded in understanding.

I believe he finally remembered.

About the author: Scotty Perry is a photographer based in Louisville, Kentucky who specializes in documentary photography and portraiture. His book affectionately named, Here, is available on his website. You can find more of Scotty’s work on his Instagram.