Then, Aëgerter showed him a photograph of a cat with her kitten, and something amazing happened.
"He was able to speak for five minutes in a row," said Aëgerter, a French visual artist
based in Amsterdam. "That image triggered something very deep in him, a very deep memory that made him feel so strong. In those minutes, it was like he had no disease at all."
The photographs Aëgerter brought to show the dementia patient were part of the early stages of a project she calls "Photographic Treatment
." The premise was simple: Improve the quality of life of elderly people with dementia by staging "photo interventions." They're individual or group sessions that focus conversations on images she curated over the span of three years.
The photos are available as diptychs in a book series, on top of wooden blocks and by free download from the project's website. In June, the book series received the Author Book Award
in July at the Recontres D'Arles, a prestigious international photography festival.
Aëgerter undertook the project in 2015 to add
levity and humor -- through unexpected pairings, like the face of a child next to one of a seal -- to the lives of patients with dementia and Alzheimer's as well as their families. According to the Alzheimer's Association
, up to 40% of people with the disease struggle with "significant depression." And too often, Aëgerter said, dementia patients are infantilized by caretakers and family members, which can add to their frustration and sadness.
"Sometimes, people don't know what's possible and what's not possible, and that makes them very cautious," she said of family members and caretakers. "I realized we should never underestimate people who are sick."
Reconnecting with people with dementia
Dementia is a broad term for a loss of cognitive abilities, such as thinking, remembering and reasoning, that interfere with one's life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for roughly 60% to 80% of dementia cases. According to the National Institute on Aging
, up to half of people 85 or older might have some form of dementia.
So why did the man Aëgerter visited have such a strong reaction to the image of the kitten and its mother? He might have connected it with a memory from his childhood and early adolescence. Researchers call this phenomenon, in which elderly people recall events that occurred when they were 15 to 25 years old, the reminiscence bump.