GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — A local photographer wants more people to see what she sees in her photos of central Texans living with dementia, and she’s using a social media habit to do it.
Friday, Carmen Davailus unveils the latest in her “Doggies for Dementia” campaign, a series of photos featuring men and women with various forms of cognitive decline posing with pups.
Carol Burns, 95, posed for the photoshoot with her daughter, Robbie, with a pair of small dogs on her lap. The mother and daughter will see the photos for the first time at 3:30 p.m. Friday at a red carpet reception at Legacy at Georgetown, the assisted living and memory care facility where Carol has lived for the last three years. Legacy sponsored Carol’s photoshoot.
Davailus, a nurse for 40 years, worked with a lot of dementia patients. She published a book last year featuring stories of 13 families, and included photos she took.
“People tell me they love my photos, but they’re hard to look at sometimes. ‘Okay,'” she remembers thinking, “‘what if we added a dog?’ Because people will scan [social media] and stop at pictures of dogs.”
That’s how Doggies for Dementia was born last December. Since then, she’s photographed a handful of people living with various forms of cognitive decline.
She wants to make sure people see the reality of dementia and the families who are working through it to encourage more honest conversation and awareness.
“There’s such a stigma, almost where people don’t even want to say out loud what the problem is,” she told KXAN. “In fact, one of the families waited until my book came out saying that their mom had Alzheimer’s because they didn’t know how to tell their family, that they were afraid people wouldn’t want to be around anymore.”
Carol Burns called Dearborn, Mich., home and regularly traveled with her family — a husband, two sons and Robbie — all over the country, never stopping over in Texas on their many trips.
A secretary for an advertising manager at a Detroit company, she told KXAN during an interview in her room at Legacy on Thursday, she remembers she always wanted to be a model instead.
“I love clothes, number one. I’m tall, I’m slender. I thought I could get away with it,” she laughed.
For the last three years, she’s lived at the memory care facility, though she sometimes needs reminding.
“Am I in Michigan now?” she asked Robbie, who sat next to her for the interview. “No, you’re in Texas,” Robbie explained. “Georgetown, Texas.”
Robbie said her mom was diagnosed with dementia several years ago.
“Fortunately,” she said, “we’re blessed that mom’s type of dementia affects her memory, and it hasn’t affected her personality.”
Carol still has a boisterous laugh, joking around with her daughter. And she still likes clothes, often adding new items to her small closet and showing them off for her daughter when she visits.
“She doesn’t usually remember where she got it,” Robbie said, “but she picked it out and it’s always cute or beautiful.”
“You think I’m worse than I am. I remember many things that you probably wish I had forgotten,” she replied, and the pair laughed together.
Increasing rates of dementia
Carol is one-of-a-kind, but her story is not unique.
Dementia is a blanket term for disorders that cause memory loss and other cognitive declines with age. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and the Alzheimer’s Association reports it’s becoming more widespread.
The group says 5.8 million Americans are living with the disease, and the number is projected to more than double, to 14 million, by 2050.
Alzheimer’s disease is also now the 6th-leading cause of death in the U.S.
“There’s just so much we don’t know,” Davailus said. “And when we don’t know something, we get scared, and we wander away.”
She hopes Doggies for Dementia connects people on Instagram and Facebook to stories of real people, likening her goals to those of breast cancer awareness campaigns over the last several decades that de-stigmatized the disease and rallied communities to support research.
Carol’s photo shoot
Photo Courtesy: Carmen’s Legacy Productions
Davailus headed to Legacy a week ago to turn Carol into the model she always wanted to be.
Surrounded by lights and cameras, with her daughter by her side, she posed with two dogs while the photographer snapped away.
Their family didn’t take many pictures together, Robbie said, so she’s thankful they’ll have some of the two of them together. “I can’t wait to see what the whole thing is going to bring.”
She and her mom will see the photos for the first time Friday afternoon in a video Davailus edited to project on a big screen following Carol’s red-carpet reception, a premiere worthy of a model. Davailus will be there, too, to snap new photos of their reactions, as she’s done for her past subjects.
Carol, meanwhile, mostly reacts to what she sees out her window. She doesn’t get to travel much past the halls of the assisted living facility, but she hasn’t given up her globetrotting past.
“I feel better today than I did yesterday, and I expect to continue to feel better. Maybe I’ll be out hitchhiking one of these days,” she laughed with Robbie, “so I can ride all around in Texas.”