alzheimers dementia care

The seasons of smiling and snapping are upon us. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve – family and friends gather with cameras.

Each generation presents its challenges. Toddlers speed out of the frame. Teens who beam for selfies frown darkly at a parent’s lens.

Our beloved grandfather and great aunt can be uncooperative, too. Especially if past portraits have been less than flattering.

With a little luck and planning, photographing older adults creates treasured family heirlooms. Try these 10 tips for making the silver-haired members of your clan shine. (They’ll make your other photos sparkle, too!)

1. Picture Mom in the Moment

Remember the first year you lived away from home? When you returned for the holidays, you hoped everyone would notice you’d changed.

alzheimer care homesNow it’s your turn to notice. When photographing older adults, focus on who they are now – not who they used to be.

Don’t try to recreate scenes from the past. Let go of the memories or abilities Mom has lost, or the traditions she’d prefer to forget. You won’t capture her smile after a chorus of “You forgot to wear your holiday sweater!” or “Not making your apple pie?”

Before you raise the camera, take a good look at who Mom is today. How does she spend her days? Does she have new friends or hobbies? What makes her smile? If you want a good picture, focus on that.

Ask her to model her outrageous Red Hat Society garb. Admire her newfound talent for painting. Snap a shot as she spoils her dog or gets silly with the grandchildren.

2. Put Away the “Cheese,” and Put Her at Ease

We often rush into picture taking, especially during the holidays. We race to line everyone up before anyone gets away. We wonder why we end up with a shot full of squints, wiggles and grimaces.

Like an athlete, you need to warm up before photographing older adults. Join Mom in setting the table, filling the bird feeders, or putting together a puzzle. Keep the conversation light. Watch for a smile.

THEN it’s time to get out the camera.

3. Stand Back – But Let the Camera Move In

alzheimers dementia careWe’re tempted to get EVERYTHING in the picture: the people – table setting – holiday decorations – snow on the ground outside.

That usually makes for a bad picture.

Focus on one subject in each photo. If you hope to capture many people or things, take lots of carefully focused photos.

Your subject should fill the frame. If you want to capture Mom’s smile, concentrate on her face. If you want to show off her pretty blouse, picture her from head to hip. Reading to her grandchildren? Sneak in till you’ve framed just this intimate little group.

Worried that she’ll feel uncomfortable when you’re so close? That’s what your adjustable lens is for! Stand back and zoom in.

4. Turn the Spotlight on Her

A director sets the stage to fasten attention on one actor or small group. He removes all distractions.

Make sure Mom plays the featured role in your photo, too. Check the background.

  • Does it make her seem small, frail or unimportant? Do things appear to stick out of her head?
  • Do dirty dishes, cords and clutter surround her? Are you taking a picture of Mom or a mess?
  • Sometimes Mom’s wheelchair or walker will show in your pictures. Consider adjusting the shot to make it seem less important. Get less of it and more of Mom.

senior care for alzheimer’s5. Make Sure She Shines

“I want to be in an ambush photo on the front page of a tabloid,” said no one ever.

Avoid the unflattering shot. Paraphrasing the Golden Rule, take pictures of others that you would have them take of you.

It may or may not be okay to take a picture of Mom misty-eyed, or in a bad mood. But if she’s always taken pride in her appearance, is it okay to photograph her with smeared lipstick? With spaghetti sauce spattering her blouse?

Be kind. Honor her spirit. See that she looks her best.

6. Don’t Shoot Till You See the Twinkle in Her Eye

Like the rest of us, some seniors are hams. Others freeze up when formally posed.

If Mom always flashes a fabulous smile, by all means snap away. Otherwise, catch her in action, doing whatever makes her happy.

Frame a picture worth taking. Focus in on the smile she exchanges with her grandbaby. Zoom in to show her absorbed in a book or puzzle. Capture her far-away gaze at the bird feeder, or her glee at joining in the sing-along with a tambourine.

7. Catch the Light

dementia homecarePhotography is the capture of light on film or in digital memory. You can’t take a good picture in the wrong light. Too little and you’ll have a dark, dull blur. Too much washes away color and details.

Remember that strong light highlights every blemish, bald spot and wrinkle. It casts dark shadows. Handled correctly, this creates a distinctive portrait. More often, the results are downright scary. As an amateur photographer, it’s better to start with soft lighting.

When outdoors, avoid the fierce mid-day sun. Take photos in early morning or evening, when light isn’t glaring from overhead. If you have an early afternoon event, take your pictures under an overhang or in light shade.

Indoors, during the day, open the blinds and let the light shine in on Mom’s face.

WARNING: Don’t use a window as Mom’s backdrop. A camera adjusts for the light behind her. If it’s bright outside, Mom’s image will turn into a dark shadow.

  • Move between Mom and the window, so the light shines on the side of her face. (Be careful that you’re not casting a shadow on her.) OR
  • Add a soft light at her side. OR
  • As a last resort, use your flash to balance the light.

At night or on dark days, you’ll need to add lots of light. Avoid harsh overhead lighting, especially fluorescent fixtures that give your photos a green hue. Use plenty of soft lamps. If you can, adjust a desk lamp so it bounces light up, off the ceiling and onto your subject.

A note about taking action shots in low light: Use your flash. Stay close enough to light everything in the frame. Steady yourself, then take a deep breath and hold it until you get the shot. When it’s dark, the camera lens stays open longer to capture enough light to make a picture. If Mom moves or your hand shakes, the lens will capture that, too – with a blur.

8. Capture Color – or Contrast

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Long ago, a photographer had to choose between color or black and white film. Today’s digital cameras can shoot in either. Editing programs let us keep changing the colors long after we shoot. Look at your photos in both.

Colors create a mood, make a statement or express someone’s personality. Aunt Mabel shows her spunk as she embarks on a morning walk in shiny purple warm-up suit and silver sneakers.

A monochromatic scheme focuses our attention on shapes and lighting. If too many colors draw your eye away from what’s most important, then consider black and white. Keep in mind, though, that the most appealing black and white pictures are not grey. They feature a strong contrast between light and dark spaces.

9. Count on Correct – Not Autocorrect

It’s fun to experiment with colors and filters. Don’t, however, take bad pictures and expect to save them with photo editing.

In the beginning, concentrate on getting the lighting and framing right. That produces a much sharper photo than one relying on heavy cropping and enhancement.

10. So Many Shots – So Little Time

Another advantage of digital photography is that you can experiment for free. Take lots of shots, quickly. Take even more shots when you’re shooting action or a group of people. A surprising number are ruined when someone blinks or leans out of the frame.

Move fast, especially if you’re asking someone to pose. Irritated, tired or bored subjects stop smiling.

Of course, friends who have to look through a lot of bad pictures stop smiling, too. Choose only your best photos and edit before sharing. Delete the rest.


Be sure your photos are shareable. If a friend likes a quick look at lots of pics, “optimize” them, shrinking before sending. If she wants to print your photos, be sure to send them “Actual Size.” Send just one large image at a time to get through most spam filters.

It’s important to get permission before sharing a person’s image. It’s especially important when photographing older adults in health care or senior living settings. Privacy laws such as HIPPA may apply. If a person has dementia or can’t make decisions for themselves, get approval from someone with legal authority to speak for them. If you’re not a close friend or family member, get permission from the operator of the health care or senior living facility, too.