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Devoted son turns father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s into a passion project

Raymond Holman Jr. uses his photography to honor caregivers

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. About 15 million people care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. Raymond Holman Jr. was one of them.

Holman’s father, Raymond Holman Sr., or “Big Ray,” was considered a pillar of his West Philadelphia community. He was 6-foot-4 and weighed about 250 pounds. In 1997, he began showing signs of dementia that signified the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

One day, Holman got a phone call from a neighbor informing him that his father had let a stranger into his home and had been robbed. That phone call changed Holman’s life forever.

Holman’s mother died when he was young. He had looked to his father as the family patriarch for decades. But Holman Sr.’s health declined quickly. In 2001, he died from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Holman was his father’s primary caregiver. He watched him suffer, and felt alone during the time.

“I was sort of on my own. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what I was going through. But my experience is not uncommon. Of course, at the time I was taking care of my father, I had no real awareness of what dementia was all about,” Holman told The Undefeated.

Now Holman has turned his experience into a project that helps caregivers overcome the fear and loneliness they often experience. His efforts bring joy to the many people who are caregivers. He owns a photo exhibit showcasing portraits of caregivers.

He’s been telling their stories through photographs and videos since his first exhibit in 2008 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. He still tells them today in the ongoing project.

“My goal really is to capture portraits of around 400 at least,” Holman said. “I just thought there was something unique about the disease. There was something extremely unique about family caregivers who were taking care of people who were losing their memory.

“Initially, I worked on a project where I was focusing on a husband and wife where the husband had been diagnosed with dementia and his wife was his primary caregiver. But after trying to get a couple of local newspapers here in Philadelphia to pick up on the story, it was turned down, so I decided to focus just on the family caregiver.”

To Holman, family caregivers are interesting because “they get so consumed in making sure that the person they’re taking care of is OK, they have a tendency to forget about themselves.”

Throughout the years, he has captured about 90 portraits of family caregivers. And since 2008, he’s had two major exhibits. The most recent were hosted at the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 and 2014.

“I have had caregivers say to me, like a year or two later, that at the time that portrait was done of them, they were going through some sort of challenge, and to be part of one of the exhibits I have been in, it just got them through a challenging time, a very challenging time,” Holman said.

Right now, all of Holman’s portraits are in a studio environment. But in 2015, Holman decided to expand the project. “I want to go back into their environment where both the caregiver and the person who is losing their memory exist and just do like a documentary project on different people.”

Holman does the photography project mainly because he knows all too well what it’s like to be a caregiver.

“I didn’t realize until years later the sort of hidden effect that taking on that role would have on me. And I realized recently it’s a very good possibility that the very first person I really loved was my father and it didn’t happen until he was in the latter stages, like the middle stages of dementia,” Holman said. “I went over to his house and I realized I had never in my entire life told my father I loved him. And I made a conscious decision to go say that to him on that one particular day.

“I didn’t have the courage to say it to him. And when I got back home that night, I really questioned why I wasn’t able to tell my father I loved him. I went back the next day and I said to him that I just want to let you know that I love you. And the way he looked at me, it was beautiful.”

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.