Helmut and Gisela are married for 61 years, three children they have raised. Twelfe years ago Helmut got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The first years with dementia were still fine, but from the moment on Helmut completly lost his memory and could not articulate meaningful sentences anymore, Gisela started to feel haunted by isolation. There are moments she feels as lonely as someone being in solitary confinement. Now she is just a familiar person that has to be at hand, that has to be available day and night. But Gisela is a tough woman, and despite feeling worn out quite often she refuses to turn her back on life’s more pleasant sides. Every year she travels with Helmut to Winterberg, a small town located in a low mountain range in midwestern Germany. There is one of the few hotels organized and equipped for demented people. The German Workers’ Welfare Association has realised the necessity to make an offer to family caregivers, who were not prepared at all to fulfill the part of a caring nurse when being in an elderly age themselves.
I first met them in autumn 2015. In Mai 2018 Helmut, aged 86, died of physical complications due to Alzheimer’s. His ashes rest in their private garden making sure, Gisela and Helmut still share some "physical space" together. Most impressively, Gisela’s courage to face life is unbroken:
"There is a lot that is lost due to this illness but nevertheless you get something back", she summarizes. "By nursing your partner a new form of intimacy arises. It’s important always to be kind, never to scream at your partner and to always take him seriously. This is a balancing act beween infantilizing and absolutely essential support. No one is prepared for that, you have to learn it!"
AUTHOR: Mirja Maria Thiel GERMANY
Mirja Maria Thiel, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1971, is a journalistic documentary photographer with a background in literature. She graduated with a master thesis about American Poetress Sylvia Plath, and has worked temporarily for German literary publishing houses’ editorial departments and in the image documentation of the World Wide Fund for Nature. In 2014, Mirja discovered her passion for visual storytelling that lead to her studying "Photojournalism and Documentary Photography" at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover. Mirja’s photographic work is long-term and deals in-depth with single characters. Her documentary narratives develope around memory and identity, exploring issues such as Alzheimer’s disease and sexuality in old age (Shortlist Portrait Of Humanity 2020, BJP 1854). Mirja lives with her her husband and their three children close to Bremen, Germany.
"Portrait ofan Artist as an Old Man" has been shortlisted in several international photo competitions (World Report/Student Award 2018, Siena Photo Award 2019), won Silver at Tokyo Foto Awards 2019 and was exhibited in Germany, Italy and Australia.