In Fabiana Sala’s latest series, we witness the bond between a mother suffering with Alzheimer’s disease and her daughter, who cares for her

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All images © Fabiana Sala.

“My mom dedicated over 10 years to my grandmother, without any expectations. I’ve always seen it as a pure and unselfish love.”

‘Honour your father and your mother’ is the fifth of the Ten Commandments, a set of biblical principles followed in Christianity and Judaism. It is also the name of a photo series by Italian photographer Fabiana Sala, who recalls being taught the principles by her grandmother as a child. It is fitting then, that this one should come to be the title of a body of work that is dedicated to her and to Sala’s mother.

Honour Your Father and Your Mother explores the relationship between these two important women in Sala’s life. Her late grandmother, Maria, had struggled with Alzheimer’s disease for many years, and as a result, her mother, Lucia, has spent the last decade caring for her. It is a dynamic that can often be, as Sala attests to, “complicated and taxing”, involving the reversal of traditional familial roles and a level of dependency that can take its toll over time. 

Maria didn't leave her house for more than ten years.
My Grandma spills milk and coffee on the table during her breakfast.

As seen in Sala’s images, her grandmother’s world, and by extension her mother’s, was reduced to the immediate surroundings of her home. According to Sala, this setting acts as a “golden cage”; a “dangerous comfort zone that can unknowingly make us prisoners.” Both Lucia and Maria spent much of the latter’s final years within these confines, attempting to navigate the tangled web of emotions that come with the giving and receiving of full-time care.

The intimate photographs, shot in black and white, bear witness to the attention required by someone suffering with Alzheimer’s. Sala’s mother is seen cleaning, grooming and feeding her grandmother – she holds up her face, scrubs a stain on her top, and dries her wet hair. Among these images that show their interactions are shots of the home in which they take place, revealing familiar details of pulled back bedsheets and household clutter. There are also shots of the world outside. Scenes that Maria most likely looks out on from her window every day.

For those with Alzheimer’s, familiarity is important. Memory becomes a fickle thing that comes and goes, so being able to connect with and understand your surroundings is crucial. Recalling her grandmother’s own experiences, Sala says: “She could remember events from decades ago, and yet forget what she had eaten the night before. No longer able to perceive the world around her clearly and distinctly, her perception of time was thrown into a sort of limbo, where nothing remains the same, and, chronologically, her memories are misplaced.”

Lucia is saying hello to Maria before heading back home.
It was December, and it was so cold. That silence of her absence felt very loud.

As such, the role of the caregiver is essential. For many, the good fortune of having family members to fill that role is not a given, but for those that do, it is a blessing. Though frequently challenging, it gives rise to the kind of special bond that can be seen here between Maria and Lucia, and this bond, more than anything else, guides Sala’s photographs. 

The photographer explains that she created the series not just to deal with the theme of loss, but also to explore themes of time, care, love and admiration. “I wanted to create a project that has an impact on others. In some ways, I hope my project might be seen as a source of strength, a tool to facilitate conversations about the topic, and support other families who might be struggling with similar issues.”

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.