by Bill Hedrick
After 40 years as a nurse practitioner, Carmen Davailus had an epiphany which changed her life in ways she could never have imagined. Having cared for many aging patients who suffered from memory loss, she was moved by their courage and their stories weighed heavy on her heart. That’s when she decided to make a difference in the world, one photograph at a time.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million Americans currently suffer from some form of dementia, and that number is expected to more than double by the year 2050. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
“Isolation and loneliness is experienced by almost everyone impacted by Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias,” she explains. “The person with the disease is stigmatized and oftentimes the families and primary care partners are as well.” But it was the stigma associated with the disease that Carmen wanted to address first. By raising awareness of what people with dementia are going through, perhaps more people would invest in ways to take better care of patients already suffering from it and hopefully find an eventual cure for the disease.
Carmen already had a passion for storytelling and believed that one great image has the power to change the world. She had already written a book, “Just See Me – Sacred Stories from the Other Side of Dementia,” about thirteen families she had met or worked with who had been affected by dementia. Their stories weighed heavily on her heart. She knew there had to be a way to create more media attention to the problem and to help reduce the very real pain of loneliness and isolation.
Photographing these families was Carmen’s way of keeping their memories alive. But, for many people, such images were sometimes hard to look at and the subject matter itself could seem unpleasant to people who did not fully understand her work. If only there was a way to change that perception. “What if we added a dog?” she thought. When scanning social media, people will invariably stop at pictures of dogs. At that moment, Doggies for Dementia was born.
Now, whenever Carmen photographs someone impacted by dementia, she includes a dog in the photo, as long as the person is okay with it. “With a dog in each photograph, people on social media are more likely to stop and take a closer look,” she explains. That’s not to say that it always goes smoothly but, to Carmen, it is well worth the effort it takes to get the perfect photograph and to show her subjects just how much she cares about them. Then, after each photo session, the family is provided with a set of images of their loved one that they can cherish forever and Carmen is able to use those images to raise public awareness.
An important fact to keep in mind is that older people are not the only ones affected by this disease. In her photographs, you will see some people in their 50’s and others in their 90’s and the settings for the sessions can be in memory care facilities, personal homes, or even in a public park. You will notice families from a variety of cultures and ethnic groups. Alzheimer’s Disease does not discriminate.
One of the many incredible stories is about a lady named Carol who lives in a memory care facility. Around her 95th birthday, Carol told her daughter that she always wanted to be a model. Her dream envisioned gowns and everything feminine and beautiful. But, as she looked around her comfortable surroundings, there was nothing close to the red carpet she had envisioned.
Carol married and raised three children. Her deceased husband was a military veteran and former prisoner of war. She lived a good life and eventually moved to Florida after retirement. About three or four years ago, her family noticed forgetfulness and had concerns about how she could care for herself as Alzheimer’s Disease slowly robbed her of her independence. Carol’s grown children moved her to a senior living facility in Georgetown, Texas.
“I knew Carol was going to be the perfect model for us,” relates Carmen. “She is about as girly as I am, loves the glitter and sparkle, and is comfortable on camera. After learning of her dream of being a model, the gears in my head started turning. Although she would be a hit on social media, Carol would probably never realize it because she was not on a computer. She would, however, have a photo session and I wanted her to have something to remind her of it every day.”
In preparation for the session, Carmen accompanied Carol in shopping for a new outfit. The day of the session, Carol was given the star treatment with hair and makeup and KVUE, the ABC affiliate in Austin, decided to cover the event as well. Normally, after each session, Carmen has a “reveal” where the family is shown a video and photographs in a private setting. But this event would be different. A red carpet event had been planned for the residents at the Georgetown facility in November of 2019. November is also Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
“The red carpet premiere for Carol was beautiful,” says Carmen. “She was surprised and family and guests were touched by the video/slideshow and the entire experience. Carol didn’t remember me joining her on her shopping day, the session with the dogs, or the TV interview, so it was all new to her. She remembered me but not why I was there.” In the video, Carol had beautiful things to say about here daughter, Robbie, which was a surprise to her. “I had no idea of the impact that Carol’s words would have.”
Because of her work with dementia awareness, Carmen Davailus has gone from a reluctant speaker to being the voice of others. With her storytelling skills and her camera, she has discovered a way to make a living doing what makes her smile. As a humanitarian, she uses compassionate photography to promote awareness for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, replacing fear with love and compassion.
Carmen Davailus lives in Salado, Texas. To learn more about her and Doggies for Dementia, check out her website at DoggiesforDementiaFoundation.org.