Honoring his father by honoring Alzheimer's caregivers

RAYMOND HOLMAN JR. Raymond Holman Sr., known as "Big Ray" to those who knew him, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. His son chronicled his father's final years in a series of photos.
RAYMOND HOLMAN JR. Raymond Holman Sr., known as "Big Ray" to those who knew him, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. His son chronicled his father's final years in a series of photos.
Posted: June 16, 2013

HIS FATHER stood 6-4, weighed 250 and was respected throughout his West Philadelphia neighborhood as a strong man, so Raymond Holman Jr. was startled when his dad phoned to say that a female stranger had come into his home and robbed him.

"My father's friends called him 'Big Ray' and his friends were big guys," Holman said. "Everybody in the neighborhood knew daddy. I mean everybody. So it was really a shock that someone would have the nerve to come into daddy's house like that and steal from him."

But that shock back in 1997 was mild compared to what would follow.

When Holman arrived at his father's house on Race Street near 50th, he learned that a woman had come to the door, asking if she could have something to drink.

Big Ray went into the kitchen to get her a drink, then remembered that he'd left his wallet out on the coffee table. When he returned to the living room, the woman and the money in his wallet were gone.

"I called the police," Holman said, "and they told us it was probably a drug addict and she would probably be back because she had found a soft spot."

Holman and his father talked about not opening the door to strangers. But a few weeks later, Holman's father phoned to say that the same woman had come back. She pushed her way in when he opened the door, wrestled him to the floor and robbed him again.

"As he told me that story, I knew there was something wrong with my father," Holman said softly. "And I knew that I couldn't leave him by himself ever again."

Holman's mother had died when he was young, so his father had been the mainstay of the family for decades. But now, Big Ray was experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia that within three years would leave him helpless and profoundly change his son's life.

Through an aunt's church, Holman found two women to care for his father in shifts during the week. And as Holman, a professional photographer, documented his father's final years in black-and-white portraits, he was deeply moved by their loving care.

On evenings and weekends, Holman, his brother and his sister also helped to care for Big Ray.

"One day, in the last year of his life, I went over to daddy's house to see how he was doing," Holman said. "I never remember daddy and I touching at all as I was growing up. I needed to touch daddy. So I reached out my hand and shook his hand and said, 'How you doing today?' This became a habit every time I saw him.

"And I never remember daddy and I saying we loved each other," Holman said. "One day, I thought, this is stupid. I said, 'Daddy, I love you.' He looks up at me. He's very surprised. These types of things were coming out of me because daddy was sick like that."

Daughters rescue dad

Big Ray died in 2001. A few years later, Holman was on a WHYY-TV assignment in Wilmington, documenting Florence Collins Hardy taking care of her husband, Russell, who suffered from frontotemporal dementia, when he realized that the incredible sacrifices made by loving caregivers in the service of dementia victims was largely an untold story.

He's been telling that story in photographs and videos ever since, from a 2008 exhibit of his caregivers photographs at the African American Museum to the current photo-and-interview sessions he does with caregivers at Calumet Photographic in Pennsport, working toward a hoped-for exhibit at a Philadelphia gallery.

At a recent session, sisters Patricia Holland and Lisa Salley talked about caring for their father, Franklin Bradley Salley, who suffered from Lewy body dementia for 18 years before he died in December at 74.

"My dad got kicked out of five adult day-cares," Salley said, sharing a knowing smile with her sister. "They all wanted him to sit still and look out the windows."

Salley said that after serving in the Navy, her dad was a Philadelphia police officer for 33 years and, as one of the first African-Americans on the force, spent many of those years as a civil-rights advocate within the department.

So even during his dementia-driven decline, he wasn't a man who was willing to sit and look out windows.

"My dad was never a frail old man," Holland said.

"It took two people to hold him and another one to wash him," Salley said. One day, she said, her father awoke from a post-shower nap very agitated. "He said, 'Three little black boys attacked me! They tore my clothes off and threw hot water on me!' "

The two sisters laughed. "Three little black boys," Salley said. "Me and my sister and a female aide."

Although taking care of their father for years was stressful, Holland said they were guided by what he had taught them - "Do what's right at all times" - and by what their mother, who had cared for her husband until her death, had taught them - "Do what's in your heart to do."

"Our family history is: You take care of your loved ones," Holland said. "You don't get a rule book or on-the-job training. You just do it."

Salley said, "Remember the mirrors?" Holland nodded, smiling.

"When dad got older and his dementia got worse, he would look in a mirror and say, 'Who is that man? That ain't me.' He didn't recognize himself. There were a lot of mirrors in his house. He was chasing himself in the mirrors all day, going, 'That ain't me.' It worried him."

Salley got covers for all the mirrors that blended with the décor, so her dad never noticed the change and forgot about the mirrors. "I'm an engineer," Salley deadpanned. "This is where it came in handy."

Love without limits

Five years ago, cousins DaVeeda Clark and Racquel Braham, both 21, had just moved to Columbus, Ohio, ready to go to college, when Clark got a call from her grandmother, Mildred Munden, who had worked as a teacher's aide for 35 years and had raised her since early childhood.

"She was in tears," Clark said. "She said, 'I haven't eaten in two days. I'm locked out of my house. I don't know where I am.' "

Clark quickly called a neighbor, who said Munden was standing in front of her own house, wearing her house keys on a chain around her neck.

Clark and Braham put their education on hold and rushed home to care for Munden.

They found bags of rotting broccoli all over the kitchen, canned goods in the refrigerator and shoes in the microwave.

The next day, her grandmother accused Clark of stealing pennies off the dresser.

"I realized we had a serious problem," Clark said.

After Munden suffered two strokes, she was unable to speak and unable to walk.

For three years, Clark and Braham sacrificed sleep and their personal lives to function as a total-care tag team - feeding Munden, bathing her, dressing her, taking turns rotating her position in her bed every three hours around the clock so she wouldn't get sores, and telling her they loved her over and over again.

Clark shampooed her grandmother's long hair, rinsed it with warm water and braided it in cornrows-all of which Munden clearly enjoyed, showing her pleasure with smiles because she no longer could speak.

Once, while Munden was comatose in her hospital bed after a stroke, Clark played her grandmother's favorite song, Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and was delighted when Munden started moving a foot to the music.

No one in Munden's family had graduated college so, even when the strokes and her dementia debilitated her, she fervently wanted to see her granddaughter graduate from Community College of Philadelphia with a degree in elementary education.

Munden was near the end of her life when Clark burst into her room in May 2012. "When I came in with my cap and gown, and showed granny my degree, she burst into tears," Clark said. "She passed away two months later."

It has taken Clark a while to deal emotionally with her grandmother's death, as it has taken Holman years to deal with his father's passing.

"Sometimes family caregivers fall so deeply into the habits you develop when you're caring for a loved one that when that person passes away, you have to figure out who you are again," Holman said. "A psychiatrist once told me that I got lost after my father died. This caretakers project is bringing focus to my life. It just keeps me pushing forward."

Honoring his father

Years after his father's death, Holman still feels the need to help someone whom he thinks is experiencing dementia.

Recently, he was parked at a convenience store in Lower Northeast Philadelphia about 5 p.m. when a woman walked over and asked him for directions to City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.

Something about the woman's vague manner compelled Holman to offer to drive to Bala and lead her home. When they arrived at her apartment building, the woman invited him up to meet her husband.

"I felt a little strange," Holman said. "Her husband looks at me. He looks at his wife. I can see in his eyes that he's thinking, 'What in the world is this dude doing with my wife?' He says to her, 'Where have you been? You've been gone all day.'

"Turns out, she was on her way to a supermarket in Bala, just a few blocks away, and she got lost and ended up in the Lower Northeast."

Her husband had called the police and reported her missing. Although the police questioned Holman and the situation at the apartment was uncomfortable, he is glad that he sensed the woman's distress and led her home.

"I'm just following my conscience," Holman said. "I'm a guy trying to pay attention to people. That's why I'm still working on this project and probably will be for the rest of my life."  

Twitter: @DanGeringer

comments powered by Disqus