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  1. Life & Culture

Devastation of Alzheimer's explored at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

TAMPA — Can you imagine your loved one disappearing before your eyes? That's the horror Olivia Parker faced when John, her husband of 52 years, descended into the nightmare of Alzheimer's disease.

Parker, whose photographic art is found in major American museums, has created images that are forceful, affecting and — for anyone who has had to deal with the dreaded disease — emotionally on target.

Some of these images are now on display in a touching and perceptive exhibition at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, in which Parker has tried to give shape to John's states of mind as he progressed from diagnosis to death over a five-year period.

In Distraction (2016), Parker imagines John's eyes as focusing on unintelligible lines of ink while a splash of warm colors glows on the right-hand side.

"John's attention flickered from place to person to thing to hallucination," writes Parker. "His eyes seemed to glance over a page but moved on before there was any recognition of text only to be attracted by a glimmer of color real or perhaps imagined."

Parker, a Massachusetts-based artist who has had more than 100 one-woman shows in the United States and abroad, uses light to create these evocative images.

"With two exceptions, these images are a single camera exposure with nothing added via Photoshop," she said.

Other works not included in the exhibit are worth seeking out for their narrative power. In Baseball, Hot Dog, Airplane, you can see, in John's own handwriting, the notes he has taken to remember the three things a physician has asked him to remember for a few minutes. That memory test is standard procedure in diagnosing a patient's condition.

"Most of the time, the patient is not aware that they have a problem," said Alzheimer's disease specialist Susan J. Steen of Tampa Neurology Associates.

Tom and Susan shows names of some close friends that John had scrawled on a scrap of paper. He didn't want to forget them.

When Steen saw Tom and Susan, she was deeply moved.

"That made me tear up."

Physicians will often ask the patient to draw the face of a clock. For Alzheimer's patients, that task is nearly impossible, as Parker pictures in the Clock (2017).

Once a successful money manager, the 80-year-old John descended into fierce anger as he struggled and failed to accomplish basic tasks. He had periods of extreme rage.

"The frustration is over the inability to express basic needs," Steen said. "It's like a child crying in anger."

For a man who had always loved to read, Parker saw that he no longer picked up a book. He had habitually loved to travel, but now he passed on chances to go on trips.

One of Parker's most powerful works can be viewed in the Tampa collection.

Few images can better express the destruction of Alzheimer's than Core (2017), in which Parker visualizes the encroaching death of John's brain. It was as if his identity was being erased — blacked out — before his body died.

"Four years before John died I saw the first scans of his brain," she writes.

"There were enlarged black areas where there was nothing. The core of his being was gradually going dark."

Steen refers to this as "anticipatory grief. The person is already gone before the body dies."

You could call it "Vanishing in Plain Sight."

Contact Joanne Milani at jamilani@tampabay.rr.com.

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