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Every picture tells a story: Groton Senior Center highlights photos and biographies of people with dementia

Mary Jo Riley, who is senior center supervisor at the Groton Senior Center, was attending a Massachusetts Councils on Aging conference when she saw a series of portraits set up in one room, along with stories about each person.

She was struck by the people in those photographs and their biographies, remembering how moving they were.

Riley took a brochure about the display, which she didn’t read till that night. Turns out, everyone featured in those portraits had dementia.

“It was really impactful because you see these people — you don’t see any disease,” she said.

Joe Wallace, a Boston photographer, created the show to help humanize people with Alzheimer’s and dementia by, according to press information, “challenging the viewer to consider the entire subject and their lifetime of experience even if the subject can no longer access or share their memories.”

Riley thought that the Groton Senior Center could do a similar project. After getting the OK from Wallace, a group of 11 people began working on the Groton version and continued all through COVID, with the final results on view this week.

The exhibition, titled “Portraits of Life: Honoring Legacies,” is going up on Wednesday, with the portrait subjects and their families coming in Thursday morning for “the reveal.” (That event is separate from the public one because a lot of people with dementia are sensitive to noise and crowds.)

On Friday, the public can stop in to see the portraits, and some of the photos and text might be kept up around the senior center longer, for a period of time to be determined. In the end, the families will get the portraits.

Cindy Olsen, the program supervisor at Groton Senior Center, took all but two of the photos for the project; they are paired in the exhibition brochure with submitted images of the subjects in their younger years.

Their connections to their passions in life are often clear. Olsen found out that one woman had been a hair stylist, so she photographed her in the Groton Senior Center salon.

“She just thought it was the best thing. You can just see her smile,” Olsen said.

When Olsen spoke about the Navy with a man who had served in that branch of the military, she recalled, “He just lit up.”

She made sure that, when she was snapping the photos, she had present a family member, caregiver or a staff member of the facility the person is in. She said she couldn’t have taken any of the photos without them, in part because they made the people with dementia feel at ease.

Some of the portrait subjects participate in the Groton Senior Center’s “Discover Connections” classes, which are designed for people ages 55 and up who might have beginning to mild cognitive challenges or are at risk for social isolation.

Other portrait subjects are from outside the Groton Senior Center and wanted to be part of the program; they are from Atria, Academy Point, Harbor Village, and Greentree.

Organizers hope the exhibition will let the public see these folks with dementia “healthy, happy, with a sparkle in their eye,” Olsen said.

“And will learn what they did in their lives, because people had amazing lives,” Riley added.

Who they were before

Discussing what organizers hope the families get from the project, Riley said, “It’s just really recognizing (she started tearing up) that their family member is a person. I’ve seen it here where somebody gets diagnosed with dementia and, as they get worse, their friends move farther away … (The project) gives them a feeling that there are people out there that understand.”

Olsen comes with the perspective of having had three family members with Alzheimer’s, two of whom have already passed away.

“So I see when you’re caught up in the caretaking part of it. and you’re caught up in the whole (she sighs) ‘Another day with Mom.’ … You also forget your mom, your husband, your uncle, whoever, is this remarkable person. And that’s what we want to focus on. We want to focus on the people they were who happen to have some sort of dementia.”

Riley also noted that the Groton Senior Center and the Groton Town Police Department will be announcing a new program for people with dementia who tend to wander. Project Lifesaver is a program in which some residents with dementia will get a bracelet to wear that has a small transmitter so it will shorten the time it takes for police to find them if they do wander. The senior center got grant money to fund part of the program, and the grant pays for the training of seven officers in Project Lifesaver.

The Groton Senior Center’s community partners on “Portraits of Life” include “Premiere Partner” Hartford HealthCare and Dr. Amy Sanders, cognitive neurologist and director of the Hartford HealthCare Memory Care Center; Sanders is Friday’s keynote speaker.

“Portraits of Life: Honoring Legacies,” 5-7 p.m. Friday, Groton Senior Center, Route 117, Groton; free; space is limited, so reservations are required by calling (860) 441-6785.


A life well lived

Here is an example of the biographies in the Groton display. This is the life story of Cecilia Lozen that daughter Irene Wadsworth wrote. Cecilia passed away last year.

In honoring the legacy of my mother, Cecilia Rivera Lozen, we must first honor the legacy of her grandmother, the great matriarch of our family, Eduarda, who was a strong force in my mother’s life. Mom often spoke of her with admiration, sharing her past of a women she respected and loved tremendously. Both women endured unimaginable hardships, and both were fully devoted to the concept of family. They taught us all how to love unconditionally.

My mother’s grandmother raised 13 of her own children before taking on the responsibility of caring for her grandchildren, including my mother and her three siblings after their own mother’s passing from TB. My mother, Cecilia, was only two, and she was the baby. These women, my mother and my great grandmother, epitomize the meaning of both “Motherhood and Sacrifice,” and their love influenced the next generation of family. 

My mother came to America from Puerto Rico at the age of 24 after marrying my father, a Navy man stationed there. My mother spoke only Spanish, and her English was limited; yet she turned her desire to learn English into a reality. My mother was proud of the fact that she spoke two languages, and to her credit, her vocabulary was impressive. 

It wasn’t always easy living in the United States during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. There was the language barrier to contend with, as well as being married to a military man whose service to his country kept him away from his family almost as much as he was around. Yet, in his absence, my mom persevered against many obstacles, proving just how strong she was when dealing with adversity. Her determination and hard work instilled in us, her four children, the importance of these attributes.

Always interested in learning and bettering herself (she loved books), she went to school to become a hairdresser thereby helping to support her family. It was a job she loved, and the many clients she served loved her.

During her lifetime, my Mother raised four college graduates: a nuclear engineer, an Air Force lawyer (and first Hispanic woman to ever become the Army General Counsel), a teacher and her namesake, who is also the baby in the family, and me - the oldest, an artist and her caregiver. My mother was exceptionally proud of all her children and grandchildren.

I know I can speak for my siblings when I say we are blessed to have been loved by an amazing woman because of her selfless dedication to family and the many sacrifices she made throughout her life that make me proud of the woman I call Mom.

She loved with all of her heart. Her legacy is love, determination and hard work. More important, the recounting of her life would be much different if it had not been for the love and sacrifice of her grandmother. These two angels watch over us today.

Born April 2, 1943- June 29, 2020.

We miss and love her with all our hearts.




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