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For some, seeing is remembering

Looking at photos helps the aged and the ill to sort out and find meaning as life's end nears.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published December 30, 2006


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HOLIDAY - Betty Ferrara is a stranger to the house. She has never stood in its doorway, never sat on its porch or tended its garden.

But when a hospice worker showed Ferrara, 75, a photograph of the home, a memory from her childhood in Harlan County, Ky., suddenly returned.

"She showed me the picture of that pretty house, and I said 'That was better than what we had,' " said Ferrara, who now lives in Holiday. "We rented a little house for $10 a month. No water, electricity, nothing.

"We was dirt poor. I tried to make a joke of it. I'd say, 'One day we had beans, potatoes and corn bread, and the next day we had beans, potatoes and corn bread.' But we was happy."

Like that, the photograph had sparked a memory that was simple but part of a deep and complicated process: making sense of a life as it nears the end.

Showing hospice patients like Ferrara the portfolio of photographs is part of a new Gulf Regional Hospice program called Life Through Pictures. The idea behind the program, which was developed by Gulf Regional social worker Marilyn Sartor, was to help ailing patients in the "life review" process.

Life review is a well-known concept in the hospice world. It refers to a psychological process in which people evaluate their lives, from their relationships to achievements to unresolved conflicts. This evaluation is a natural reaction to growing old or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Hospice workers try to help their patients sort through the memories and feelings, to put their relationships into perspective.

"They need to know their life has had value and meaning," said Sartor, who has been doing social work for 20 years. "Everything is not intense, but sometimes it is."

A photography buff, Sartor came up with the Life Through Pictures idea when she noticed the reactions of her friends to random shots she had taken.

Even if they did not know the person or place in the picture, the friends would recall something else when they studied it. "The phrase 'I remember when' kept coming up," she said.

With a $4,000 grant from United Way of Pasco County, Sartor put together a portfolio of photographs she had taken, everything from a fisherman to an antique washing machine to dogs. She also included old advertisements, copies of wartime ration cards and radio show schedules.

The hope is that the photographs or memorabilia will serve as visual cues, prompting patients to tell their stories. When she shows a patient the closeup photograph of two pairs of hands, for instance, she will ask: Who did you used to hold hands with?

Less than two years in practice, the photography program has been recognized with an award by Florida Hospice and Palliative Care.

"We hadn't seen anything as in-depth as this," said Mary Richt, the chairwoman of the state award committee. "To have something to stimulate that discussion is very important. It's what we do in hospice."

Back at her home in Holiday, Ferrara, who suffers from lung disease and other ailments, was thinking about the photograph of an old washing machine.

"I'd never seen one like that," she said. "But the wringer washer I saw. In fact, I got my arm caught in one one time. This was in Tennessee, after I was married, and we went to live with his mother. She had a washer on what she called her 'side porch.' I got my arm caught in it."

She adjusted herself in her worn recliner, bottles of pills on a table beside her, a Christmas tree decorated by a hospice nurse in front of her.

The washer incident - she wasn't badly hurt - reminded her of trying to find a job in the Tennessee town, looking for work at a hosiery mill and ending up as a clerk at a ladies dress shop.

She remembered her husband, whom she later divorced: "He was a mean one," she said.

And she remembered his mother, who showed her kindness even after the marriage ended. "She said I could stay with her," said Ferrara, shaking her head as if the memory surprised her.

This remembering feels important, she said, though she can't quite say why. It just happens these days.

"I try not to think too much about the bad things, or the sad things. I'd rather think about the good things," she said. "Then the bad things pop up. It helps to talk with someone. I talk to myself, and I don't get anywhere."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at 727 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 30, 2006, 07:00:53]


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