All the Little Things

Lori Grinker shares her mother’s story of living with dementia in this award-winning photo essay.

This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

I wasn’t close to my mother, Audrey. She never told me she loved me, and our relationship was strained by my parent’s divorce and my brother’s death from AIDS in 1996. And yet, during the last year of her life we found an intimacy we’d never had before.

This photographic series is about that awful, magical time when, struggling with dementia and a terminal cancer diagnosis at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to heal the rifts of a lifetime. It’s not a linear photo essay; it’s a set of emotional images meant to reflect colliding worlds.

In 2015, after my mother mixed up her prescription medicines and nearly died, a neurologist diagnosed some form of early onset Alzheimer’s, but for the next few years, she seemed to recover well. It is stunning how well she hid it. Later, I’d wonder how I’d missed the clues. I was often hurt by things she would say or do, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I realized what lay behind her “insults” or thoughtlessness.

On March 13, 2020, I went to Florida to help her move into an assisted living facility, a plan suddenly derailed by COVID. Instead, for the next three months I became her housemate, her cook and her caregiver. Instinctively, I began photographing her doctor’s visits (during this time, she was diagnosed with cancer), her meals, treatments and her pain. I began making small photographic series — the food I prepared, waiting rooms, her neighbourhood. As I packed up her apartment, I made still life images of the objects that brought us shared memories.

The impact of COVID-19 on elderly living in facilities was devastating. Studies showed a two-fold increase in hyperactivity, agitation and the emergence of bizarre behaviours in dementia patients. I saw this firsthand, saw my mother thrown into a whirlwind of confusion worsened by isolation. As I watched her stop eating and slowly starve, I had to learn, or relearn, how to talk to her, how to react, how not to take it personally. Amazingly, this shook my mother and I free from our decades-old patterns and allowed us to finally be together and share.

Audrey in Rome, overlooking the Spanish Steps. Italy, circa 1960.

Audrey waits for the movers on her first day in assisted living. The Plaza at Park Square, Aventura, Florida. May 27, 2020.

Audrey sleeps on her sofa after breaking her foot while trying to move a huge TV cabinet on her own. This was one of the first indications that she could no longer live alone but at the time we didn’t see that. September 2015.

Audrey jokes around after agreeing to let me photograph her as she begins a series of medical tests required after a routine blood test showed a possibility of cancer. March 28, 2020.

As her cancer diagnoses was being made, Sherika, Audrey's home health care aide, checks her heart rate and blood pressure. April 13, 2020.

Left: I help Audrey choose a robe to wear for her first telemedicine appointment during cancer diagnosing. April 1, 2020. Right: Audrey’s bathroom drawers (part of a series of her “things”). She was getting ready to move to assisted living which was postponed due to COVID 19. At the same time, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. May 2020.

Audrey sits in her shower chair as her aide, Sherika, blows her hair dry. April 2020.

Seemingly lucid enough to try fixing her watch, during this week she lost her government stimulus check just after opening the envelope (we never found it). April 2020.

Getting Audrey to eat and take her meds was a challenge. This is another series of “things” that I documented during this time. April-May 2020.

Left: In 2017, Audrey was admitted to Aventura Hospital after her friends found her on the floor of her apartment, soiled and confused. Due to dementia, she had mixed up her medications and became delirious. March 2017. Right: Audrey wanted to get some air but was weak and had to hold on to the wall as we walked. March 2020.

After her hospital stay in 2017, Audrey entered a rehabilitation facility. Here she is putting on her lipstick, thinking she was going to leave with me. She became angry when she found out otherwise. March 2017.

Audrey rests after her medical test which resulted in a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Aventura, Miami, Florida. April 2020.

Left: In the rehabilitation center Audrey, confused, is trying to put a shoe on when she already has her shoes on. March 2017. Right: During a walk, Audrey became lightheaded. When we arrived at her apartment door, she realized she didn’t have her keys. While waiting for someone to bring her keys, she fainted. March 2020.

Audrey gets an EEG as part of a dementia diagnosis. March 2017.

Audrey’s doctor of many decades visits her at Aventura Hospital. March 2017.

Left: A few weeks before she passed away. February 28, 2021. Right: One morning I arrived at Aventura Hospital to find Audrey fast asleep with the belt of her robe tied around her neck. March 2017.

Black and blue marks from chemotherapy infusions. May 14, 2020.

Audrey was taken to the ER for stiches after she fell in the bathroom during her chemotherapy treatment. Her oncologist stopped her treatments after this since it was the third fall in as many weeks. June 2020.

A screen grab from a Facetime call during the time when I was unable to visit due to COVID-19 restrictions. New York/Miami. July 2020.

Audrey often got confused and would put on her sunglasses and purse ready to go out. She was extremely stubborn and would get agitated. It was difficult to get her back inside. One of the staff at the assisted living facility would calm her down by asking her about her pottery work that was around the apartment. March 2021.

Even when in a lot of pain, Audrey wanted to sit in her chair and be with people. This was two weeks before she died. March 2021.

One year after being diagnosed with cancer, and her Crohn’s disease treatment was stopped, Audrey Grinker passed away. She had stopped eating and was suffering from dementia. March 23, 2021.

Audrey’s body is wheeled out of her apartment. March 24, 2021.

The last piece of art waiting to be moved out after Audrey passed away. During this week of packing up her things, I photographed the things that remained as well as a series of portraits (not shown) with short interviews of the people who were part of her life in the facility. March 29, 2021.

Thirty Little Things. This is part of a series I made when I was moving Audrey out of her apartment into assisted living in 2020. Photographing and talking about these objects brought us closer together. March-May 2020.


All the Little Things is the winner of the 2022 Bob and Diane Fund, an award for visual storytelling about Alzheimer's and dementia.

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