Juanita Peterson gave me a firm handshake and warm greeting. She listened patiently as I explained this project and gave a little background about myself and my family’s history with dementia. She agreed to let me take her portrait and tell her story because she adamantly wanted to help others with dementia if she could. But she asked me to come back another day because she didn’t like her appearance today. I gently explained that we had a similar conversation two weeks earlier and that today was the day she had chosen for me to come back. Juanita quietly sighed, nodded her head, and said, “Ok. I’m ready then.”
Juanita described that she was born in 1939, one of seven children, and grew up in Winston Salem, NC. After graduating high school, she moved in with an older sister in New York City to attend City College. During that time, she met her future husband, Alonso (Al), who was from Tuskegee, AL and a NYC police officer. She continued her studies at New York University, earning a PhD in clinical psychology. For 28 years she worked with adolescents and adults at Bellevue Hospital. After retiring, Juanita and Al moved to Chesapeake, Virginia.
When I asked Juanita how she came to Boston she replied, “I’m still trying to recapture information but it just blocks out. I don’t have details on what happened to me. All I know is that one day I woke up in my daughter’s house. And that was weird. I’ve been trying to recapture what happened . . . it’s a total blackout. I don’t remember being ill. I just remember waking up in my daughter’s house. I don’t even remember being in the hospital.“
I asked Juanita about her dementia and how it feels to not remember, and she replied, “It feels awful. Let me tell you. It feels like a part of my life is cut off and I can’t get it back. I really feel sad. The other day I couldn’t remember my husband’s birthday. How could I forget that!? It’s frightening that you could not remember things that were so important to you.”
Later, Juanita’s daughter Lisa explained that Al was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2015 and passed away in 2017. Juanita was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 and her memory decline accelerated after Al’s death. In 2018, Juanita was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction and Lisa decided it was no longer safe for Juanita to live in Virgina and moved her mother into her home in Boston. Lisa told me, “She misses Al. He was her rock. I think she finds living with me demoralizing and humiliating. She was so independent and used to making her own decisions. It’s definitely shifted the family dynamics. Everyone has learned to be patient and more understanding.”
It was then I remembered asking Juanita, with all your work and life experience, what advice would you give someone? Without hesitation she told me, ”Just be yourself. Be honest. Whatever you feel or think, you should be able to express that and treat people the way you want to be treated.“