Photos lovingly chronicle the face of Alzheimer’sOpal Cumlay spent most of her 90 years working as an educator. The Duluth native passed away in May, but now her granddaughter hopes she will continue to inspire and educate through a series of photographs.
By: Tom Olsen, for the Budgeteer
Opal Cumlay spent most of her 90 years working as an educator. The Duluth native passed away in May, but now her granddaughter hopes she will continue to inspire and educate through a series of photographs.
Zaundia Klingbeil was taking a photography class this spring and decided to document her grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease over the final weeks and months of her life.
“I just wanted to show the reality,” Klingbeil said. “I feel like if people saw the reality of it, then maybe it would impact them enough to want to know more, to want to do something.”
The photographs include, among others, a closeup of Cumlay’s wrinkled face, one from her 90th birthday party and another with Klingbeil’s 8-year-old son. The pictures were displayed at Lake
Superior College’s art show and Klingbeil plans to exhibit them at future events to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s.
Klingbeil served as a full-time caregiver for her grandmother, moving her into her home last year. Klingbeil said she asked her grandmother, on a day when she was fully cognizant, if she should pursue the photography project and Cumlay was supportive.
“She agreed that it was something that would be good if it could raise awareness,” Klingbeil said. “She just talked a lot about how she hoped there would be a cure found, at least in my lifetime.”
Klingbeil said it was hard to find resources to help deal with the effects of her grandmother’s disease, although the Alzheimer’s Association was able to offer some comfort.
“They hooked me up with someone who was in a similar situation and they were able to help me,” she said.
Wendy Ruhnke, the Community Engage-
ment Manager for the Alzheimer’s Association’s office in Duluth, said a lack of resources is all too common for families dealing with Alzheimer’s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Alzheimer’s disease as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. But federal research dollars spent researching diseases such as cancer and HIV greatly exceeds those spent on Alzheimer’s, Ruhnke said.
“It’s the only disease in the top ten that kill people that we’re not making progress on,” said Ruhnke, whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s.
According to Ruhnke, Alzheimer’s is far more common than most people think because doctors are hesitant to diagnose it and people are afraid to admit they have the disease. But with new detection technologies emerging and the baby boomer generation aging, Ruhnke said she expects a big increase in Alzheimer’s cases.
Ruhnke said many people mistake symptoms of Alzheimer’s for normal aging. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include an inability to pay bills and balance a checkbook, losing track of time or location, poor judgment, withdrawal from social activities and changes in mood.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers counseling for families dealing with Alzheimer’s, as well as raising money for research.
“A high percentage of patients with Alzheimer’s are cared for in home,” Ruhnke said. “That’s draining and stressful.”
Ruhnke described Klingbeil’s photographs as “powerful” and said she thinks they can have a big impact on people who aren’t aware of Alzheimer’s effects.
Klingbeil said she was at first hesitant to display the personal photos publically, but went through with it because she feels they humanize Alzheimer’s.
“The pictures give a face to it and I think people will be able to relate to it,” she said. “It’s someone’s grandma, not just the name of some disease.”
And the photos allow Klingbeil to stay connected with her beloved grandmother.
“When I was caregiving for her, it was like we were fighting this unseen assailant together, and now by showing the photos and hopefully raising more awareness, it feels like one last fight we’re doing together.”
Ruhnke expects about 500 people to take part and hopes to raise more than $5,000 for Alzheimer’s support services and research. The walk has been held annually in Duluth since 1989.
For more information on Alzheimer’s, Ruhnke suggests calling the 24/7 helpline at 1 (800) 272-3900 and speaking with Annette or Jena.