My grandmother, Helga von Randow, was 92 years old when she was diagnosed with dementia. Shortly afterwards, she was admitted into a closed medical facility as her disease had deteriorated. Five months later, Helga passed away.
Over the course of these five months, I visited Helga often, spending quality time with her and documenting her daily life. I am grateful that I got to share so much time with my gran during her final weeks, doing all the things she loved most: playing card- and dice games, listening to her favorite singer Udo Jürgens, taking her out for walks in the park and having iced coffee in an Italian cafe. As time progressed, the dreadful effects of Helga’s illness, not only on herself but the rest of the family became apparent: My mom, Nicoletta, and I were trying hard to cope with the situation, feeling incredibly powerless and paralyzed.
Holding onto my camera gave me the strength and a certain distance to face the tragic reality of her horrible disease. The moment I put my camera aside, the pain would hit me with force: There was nothing I could do to help Helga. All I could do was to be by her side, hold her hand, and helplessly watch her once so witty spirit disappear and her body wither away.
When Helga passed away in October 2015 I was heartbroken, yet I also felt relief. Relieved because she didn’t have to suffer any longer. Relieved because she still recognized Nicoletta and I until the end. I was smiling through my tears, because I knew that she was resting in peace, freed from this awful disease.
This body of work is a tribute to my grandmother, whose grace and courage never seized to amaze and inspire me.
This essay was Shortlisted for the EPF 2016
Helga always loved games. Once I tested her during a match of Yatzy, claiming that “4×5=30”. “No!”, she corrected me immediately, “4×5=20!” Studies show that cognitive activities can delay the onset of memory decline in persons who suffer from dementia. Bedburg, GERMANY, September 16, 2015.
Helga and Nicoletta walking. Helga always loved going for a stroll. Even at 92, she would still go outside every day. „Kopf und Beine müssen immer in Bewegung bleiben“ (“Head and legs always have to keep moving“), was one of her life mottos. Bedburg, GERMANY, 1 June, 2015.
The few belongings that would accompany Helga to her new home fitted into one suitcase. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Helga riding the elevator in her house. Nicoletta had explained that she was moving to a retirement home today. Helga protested, then forgot about it a few moments later, only to ask again where we were going. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Helga holding my hand. Bedburg, GERMANY, October 7, 2015.
Helga von Randow was 92 years old when she was diagnosed with dementia. “92” is a tribute to my grandmother, whose grace and courage never seized to amaze and inspire me. Bedburg, GERMANY, August 14, 2015.
Helga’s livingroom. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
After arrival at the retirement home, a nurse explained the daily routines and activities to Helga. Helga had been living by herself for over 40 years. Adopting to her new surroundings – including having a room mate for the first time in her life – proved very difficult for her. Wegberg, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Helga as a beautiful young woman when she was 27 years old. Bedburg, GERMANY, October 13, 2015.
Helga looking out of her living room window. This day Helga was moved out of the apartment in which she had lived in for 55 years, to be admitted into a closed medical facility. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
As time progressed, the effects of Helga’s illness, not only on herself but the other family members, became apparent. Bedburg, GERMANY, September 17, 2015.
Helga leaving her living room. On the right hand side, there is a picture Nicoletta when she was 16 years old. Nicoletta grew up in this apartment with Helga and her grandmother Edith. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Helga signing a document to redirect her post to Nicoletta upon arrival at the retirement home. Wegberg, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Helga trying on new sunglasses that Nicoletta brought her. Helga had taken a fall and was released from hospital that day. Bedburg, GERMANY, July 17, 2015.
Helga checking her letterbox one last time before moving to the retirement home. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Family photographs in Helga’s living room. The picture on the right shows Helga as a 27 year old woman, the pictures show her late husband. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
At times Helga was interacting like her old witty self; at other times she would be in another world, listlessly staring into nothingness. Here Nicoletta encouraged Helga to eat her chocolate pudding. Wegberg, GERMANY, June 1, 2015.
Helga sitting in her kitchen, while her daughter Nicoletta finalises preparations for the departure to the retirement home. Neuss, GERMANY, May 29, 2015.
Nicoletta feeding Helga after she had a physical breakdown. Bedburg, GERMANY, August 18, 2015.
Helga and Nicoletta inside Helga’s bathroom at the closed medical facility. As time progressed, the effects of Helga’s illness, not only on herself but the other family members, became apparent. That day Helga was hallucinating and Nicoletta got very upset. Bedburg, GERMANY, September 17, 2015.
Helga always had a sweet tooth and loved iced coffee. Here I took her to an Italian café to splurge. Bergheim, GERMANY, September 15, 2015.
Helga stares into nothingness while Nicoletta jokes with another patient on the veranda of the closed medical facility. At times Helga was interacting like her old witty self; at other times she would be in another world. Bedburg, GERMANY, October 8, 2015.
Helga looking at a photograph of the house she grew up in her birthtown, Potsdam, as a child. Bedburg, GERMANY, October 13, 2015.
Helga’s grace and courage never seized to amaze and inspire me. Bedburg, GERMANY, September 17, 2015.
Nicoletta caresses Helga after she had a physical breakdown. The awareness of how limited time is, makes one appreciate each shared moment so much more. Bedburg, GERMANY, August 18, 2015.
Nicoletta arranges a flower during Helga’s memorial, which was held in the closest cricle of family and friends. During a ceremony family members spread some of Helga’s ashes in the river Rhine. Cologne, GERMANY, December 5, 2015.
Nadja Wohlleben is a German documentary photographer and cultural anthropologist. A careful play of documentation and artistry, Nadja’s work focuses on concepts of femininity, power and identity. Portraying people from diverse cultural backgrounds, she documents their stories through her imagery in an authentic, intimate and aesthetic style. With a keen eye for detail, Nadja’s photography brings humanity to the foreground. Nadja holds an MA in Photojournalism from University of Westminster in London. Her work gained international recognition through photo contests such as the International Photography Awards, FotoVisura Photography Grant, or Moskow International Foto Awards.
Wohlleben is based in Berlin.