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Pictures of Aging: Photographs connect seniors with their families

By Catherine Godbey

For the Enquirer

The black-and-white portraits — featuring close-ups of faces and hands lined with wrinkles — reveal a glimpse into the lives of senior citizens, cloistered from friends, family and the outside world during the pandemic. They depict love, loss, friendship, contentment and joy.

Called “Pictures of Aging,” the project features portraits of residents at Decatur’s Riverside Senior Living.

“During this awful COVID-19 time, where families have not seen their loved ones since March 13 — what we call D-Day around here — I wanted a way to capture a picture families could cherish,” said Lisa Burns, activity director at Riverside.

The photographs show how one senior living facility, during a time of isolation, has found a way to connect families.

“We shut our doors, and we thought it would be for a month or two,” Burns said. “As that time extended, and the only visits residents had with loved ones were with a window pane between them, we really started seeing it took a mental toll. The families went months without seeing their mothers, fathers and grandparents.”

A photograph of Burns holding her grandfather’s hand inspired the project, which now appears in the hallway of the senior living facility.

“One of my most treasured memories of my grandfather was when he passed away. I was holding his hand. When I was looking at that picture of our hands together, I saw realness,” Burns said. “It was a real picture of aging. It shows his lines and his callouses. It was my Papaw. That’s what I wanted to give people here: a real, true picture of their lives at this point in time.”

To create the photographs, Burns enlisted the talent of Hartselle photographer Rachel Howard. The project allowed Howard, a former nurse, to combine her passions of caring for others and photography.

“I was a nurse for seven years and started out doing hospice. The geriatric community has been a big part of my life and is a big part of who I am today,” Howard said. “This project is a culmination of what I love about nursing and what I love about photography.”

During the photography sessions, Burns interacted with the residents and helped create what Howard described as the “special in-between” moments.

“I don’t really like the posed moments. I like the in-between moments. That’s where the truth lies. That’s when an image begins to tell a story,” Howard said.

In the photographs, viewers will see a woman who wears a cross necklace made from the bullet casing that killed her husband, a police officer, in the line of duty. They’ll see a man, one of the first airmen from north Alabama, who is never seen — including in the photograph — without his Auburn University belt and class ring. There’s a widow who continues to wear her wedding ring after the recent death of her husband, and there’s

the photo of two 101-year-old women celebrating a friendship. Then there’s the 72-year love story of a husband and wife who met at Riverside High School and wed as teenagers before he went off to war.

One of Howard’s favorite images features Tiny Hollis sitting on the lap of her husband, Joe Hollis.

“They have been married more than 60 years and were just so cute. Mr. Hollis was in a motorized wheelchair, and he said, ‘I want her to sit on my lap.’ As soon as Mrs. Hollis did, that was his reaction,” Howard said, pointing to the contented smile on Joe Hollis’ face.

On the day of the photo shoot, most of the seniors, despite having an appointed time slot, gathered around the activity room where Howard set up her equipment.

“I asked them not to get made up, but all of the women had to wear their lipstick. They were so excited. They wanted to see everyone else get their picture taken. It was a big bonding experience,” Burns said.

For the residents in hospice care, Howard went room to room to capture their images. A week after Howard took the photographs in October, one of the residents died.

“Her son called me after her death. He said this was the last picture he would have of his mother, and he would treasure it forever,” Burns said. “That’s why I wanted to do this: to give the residents and their families memories during a time when they have not been able to make memories together.”

The decision to shoot black-and-white photographs rather than color rested with Burns.

“These are raw images of what aging is. It’s the lines, it’s the work, it’s the stories behind each one of these pictures,” Burns said. “Black-and-white photographs are real. There’s no cover up. There’s no distraction. It shows their wisdom. It shows the lives they led.”

For Howard – who, for the past 10 months, grappled with guilt – the project offered healing.

“I have felt guilty during this whole pandemic because I’m an able-bodied nurse who’s not in the field,” Howard said. “When Lisa came to me with the idea about the photographs, I knew this was a way I could serve people and serve them well.”

The “Pictures of Aging” exhibit caught the attention of Decatur’s Carnegie Visual Arts Center, which will display 38 of the images in a display at the Huntsville International Airport from April until June.

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