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They say a picture is worth a thousand words — and it can be priceless, actually, if it brings back memories of a loved one’s unique spirit and qualities after he or she has left this Earth.

This is what Julie Centrella, a wife, mother of three and small business owner in Reading, Mass., learned when she commissioned portraits of her mother, Anne Walsh, who struggled with dementia in her later years due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“In the beginning, she was good at covering things up, so we didn’t really know how bad it was.”

 

“We had been watching my mother decline, and it was getting worse and worse,” Centrella, 52, told Fox News Digital in an interview.

“In the beginning, she was good at covering things up, so we didn’t really know how bad it was.”

Until her symptoms began, Walsh was living a full and productive life.

Anne Walsh emigrated to Boston as a young woman. She married, raised four children and became a grandmother to seven grandchildren.
(Joe Wallace )

Born in 1935 in County Galway, Ireland, into a family that would eventually include 16 children, Anne Walsh emigrated to Boston as a young woman. She married and raised four children, eventually becoming “Nana” to seven grandchildren. She loved fashion and was a very good cook, said Centrella. She was also a person of deep faith.

Anne Walsh was widowed for the last 25 years of her life. After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, her daughters moved her from the south shore of Massachusetts to the Boston area, so she could be closer to them.

“My mom’s speech began to be affected, her sentences were jumbled, and it was getting really hard to even carry on a conversation.”

 

Walsh endured Alzheimer’s for 15 years before she passed away on Dec. 8, 2021, at the age of 86.

Today, an estimated 6.2 million Americans ages 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia (though those numbers could be higher). The numbers could rise to 13.8 million people by 2060, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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The disease progresses at different rates for each person. “My mom’s speech began to be affected, her sentences were jumbled, and it was getting really hard to even carry on a conversation,” said Centrella.

She said that around that time, “a customer told me about Joe Wallace,” a Mass.-based photographer whose mission it is to take photos of people with dementia as a way of honoring them and capturing their essence.

Julie Centrella and her mom, Anne, in one the portraits taken by photographer Joe Wallace, whose goal it is to help remove the stigma associated with Alzheimer's. 

Julie Centrella and her mom, Anne, in one the portraits taken by photographer Joe Wallace, whose goal it is to help remove the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s.
(Joe Wallace )

Centrella said, “Joe also learns about their background, and who and what they were before their dementia diagnosis.” She said that Wallace “feels, as do I, that it’s very hard to talk about dementia.”

Centrella added that often, “people are almost embarrassed by it, or they don’t understand it.”

Photographer Wallace strives to capture not the despair, fear, or futility of the disease — but the essence of the person who is suffering through it.

 

Wallace has enormous sensitivity for those struggling with dementia. Through his moving portrait series, “The Day After Yesterday: Portraits of Dementia,” and his website Portraitsofdementia.com, he aims to destigmatize the condition and present the multiple facets of a person who is journeying through it.

“Alzheimer’s can be so difficult for people in the family to handle, because the loved one is still physically present,” said Wallace — while many of the person’s memories are not. “It’s sort of a personal project for me,” he added, noting that he strives to capture not the despair, fear, or futility of the disease but the essence of the person suffering through it.

Anne Walsh (second from right) with three of her four children. Photographer Wallace's own grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's. "When I met Julie and her mother and her sisters," he said, "I was blown away by their strength and their ability to use the experience to draw them closer."

Anne Walsh (second from right) with three of her four children. Photographer Wallace’s own grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s. “When I met Julie and her mother and her sisters,” he said, “I was blown away by their strength and their ability to use the experience to draw them closer.”
(Joe Wallace )

The portraits of Anne Walsh are part of his series, which Wallace exhibits at different locations. He also participates in workshops on the topic of dementia.

Wallace’s passion for the subject comes from experience: His own grandfather had Alzheimer’s and his grandmother had vascular dementia.

“I wanted to share other people’s stories, using empathy as a way to help connect people who might be feeling alone.”

 

He told Fox News Digital, “I wanted to share other people’s stories, using empathy as a way to help connect people who might be feeling alone.”

“There are millions [of people] living with different types of dementia, and they still have life left in them and the ability to connect with people they love,” Wallace said. “When I met Julie and her mother and her sisters, I was blown away by their strength and their ability to use the experience to draw them closer.”

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He added, “That’s a more powerful story than just focusing on Anne’s decline.”

He has taken over 60 sets of portraits throughout a five-year period, he said.

Julie Centrella, second from right, with her husband, Pat, and their three children. Centrella named her business Aine's Boutique after her mother's original Irish name (which she changed once she came to this country). 

Julie Centrella, second from right, with her husband, Pat, and their three children. Centrella named her business Aine’s Boutique after her mother’s original Irish name (which she changed once she came to this country).
(Julie Centrella)

Centrella and her family, including sisters Evelyn and Eileen and brother, Tim, were thrilled with the way their mom’s portraits turned out.

“They captured her spirit, her expressions. She was still verbal at the time they were taken, but not like she used to be.”

The family displayed Joe Wallace’s photos of Anne Walsh at her funeral Mass this past December — as well as on her prayer cards.

 

“It was something to hold onto,” added Julie Centrella of the portraits.

She said the family displayed the photos at her mom’s funeral Mass this past December, as well as on her prayer cards. “She will live on through these portraits,” she said.

Centrella shared the pain of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis for patients’ loved ones. “My father passed away from cancer and as bad as that was, the Alzheimer’s is worse,” she said.

Alzheimer’s can mean “a lot of small losses along the way … In the end, there’s still the person in there somewhere.”

 

“You become numb to it because you’re losing your loved one by degrees. First, they don’t know who you are, and that’s shocking, and that guts you — and they don’t know who your children are. Then you get over that — and soon the day comes where they can’t really speak or smile at you.”

Julie Centrella and her husband, Pat, of Massachusetts. With her mom's illness top of mind, Centrella decided to organize a fashion show to raise money for Alzheimer's. From 2015-2019, the show raised over $200,000.

Julie Centrella and her husband, Pat, of Massachusetts. With her mom’s illness top of mind, Centrella decided to organize a fashion show to raise money for Alzheimer’s. From 2015-2019, the show raised over $200,000.
(Julia Centrella)

Centrella said dementia is “a lot of small losses along the way … In the end,” she added, “there’s still the person in there somewhere, and you do get fleeting moments of that, and sometimes you’ll get a smile or a little glimmer of recognition.”

Seven years ago, as her mother struggled with the disease, Centrella’s thoughts turned to activism. She decided to put on a local fashion show to raise money, with friends and customers serving as runway models.

The fashion show, though interrupted by COVID-19 the last few years, “brings the community together while raising awareness about Alzheimer’s.”

 

She has owned her own retail business, an upscale but affordable clothing boutique named Aine’s, in downtown Reading for the last 15 years. She’s also developed an online business at AinesBoutique.com.

“I named the business after my mom, who while growing up in Ireland went by the name Aine,” she said. “She changed it to Anne when she moved to America.” (Centrella’s 18-year-old daughter is named Aine.)

Noting that her first shows were small, raising “around $2,000 per event,” she soon got involved with a local Reading charity that was already raising funds for Alzheimer’s, The David K. Johnson Foundation. Today, Centrella serves on its board.

Raising awareness about Alzheimer's is as important as raising money, particularly "making public spaces accessible and welcoming to those with dementia and their caregivers," said Greg Johnson of The DKJ Foundation.

Raising awareness about Alzheimer’s is as important as raising money, particularly “making public spaces accessible and welcoming to those with dementia and their caregivers,” said Greg Johnson of The DKJ Foundation.
(iStock)

Working with The DKJ Foundation for the last seven years, Centrella said donations have soared, with the money raised going to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, a nonprofit based in Wellesley, Mass., aimed at accelerating research to bring about a cure for the disease.

Between 2015 and 2019, the fashion show raised over $200,000.

Centrella noted that her show, although interrupted for the last several years by COVID-19 mandates, “brings the community together while raising awareness about Alzheimer’s.”

“The [portraits] convey her love for us, even though she couldn’t really speak anymore when they were taken. It’s been a treasure to have them.”

 

The co-founder of The DKJ Foundation, Greg Johnson, has his own story of love and loss. His father was diagnosed at age 59 with Alzheimer’s, and after the sudden death of his mother, his whole family had to scramble for care options for his dad.

Johnson appreciates the opportunity to partner with Centrella. Their bond, he told Fox News Digital, comes from “having common ground and then wanting to do something about it.”

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He noted that raising awareness is as important as raising money, particularly “making public spaces accessible and welcoming to those with dementia and their caregivers,” he said, such as restaurants and other everyday destinations.

“Everyone has something [they’re dealing with], whether it’s dementia or breast cancer. We all have our struggles.”

 

Centrella said it has been very rewarding to have an impact on her community as a small business owner. “I’ve become really close to a lot of my customers, and everyone has something [they’re dealing with], whether it’s dementia or breast cancer. We all have our struggles.”

Centrella is open to participating in an Alzheimer’s trial in the future. “I would love to be able to,” she said.

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“It makes sense, if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s — maybe it is allowing brain scans to be taken, or whatever helps the cause. My mom has five sisters who were also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” she added.

Centrella said she chooses to focus on the positive, especially all that she has, including the poignant portraits of her mother.

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“They convey her love for us, even though she couldn’t really speak anymore when they were taken,” she said. “It’s been a treasure to have them.”

 

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