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Humans of Dementia Contest Highlights Disease's Impact

Read winning entries from students across the country

two photo portraits of people with dementia taken by students and chosen as contest winners

Asia Brody / Danielle Towers / Courtesy Hilarity for Charity

Photo by Asia Brody of her papa; Photo by Danielle Towers of her grandmother

En español

​​How can we honor the stories of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease? That’s the question at the heart of the Humans of Dementia Storytelling Contest, which puts a spotlight on the individual impact of a disease that affects an estimated 6 million Americans today.

The 2021 contest, co-sponsored by AARP in partnership with the national Alzheimer’s nonprofit Hilarity for Charity (HFC), invited high school and college students from across the country to submit essays and photographs that shed light on the experiences of loved ones who are living with, or have died from, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. HFC was founded in 2012 by actor Seth Rogen and his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen, to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and support prevention and research efforts related to the disease.

“The winning entries show the power of relationships between generations,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy at AARP. “Great journalism can keep the essence of a person’s lifetime shining brightly for others to see, even when that person’s own memories begin to fade.”

Read excerpts from this year’s first-place essays and photographs below, or visit the HFC website for more stories.

My grandmother wrote. Her books sit on our shelf, proud in their jackets. I write, too, and I can feel her when I do. My words are typed into a computer, its screen makes my face glow. Hers were typed into a typewriter, the clacking keys echoing the speed of her thoughts.

I write for my grandmother, I put down my ideas because she did. Our stories are different, but they come from the same well inside us.

— Fiona Dority, 1st place high school story winner

photograph of older man seated in chair with the room around him blurred

Photo taken by Asia Brody

My papa had dementia, which turned to Alzheimer’s, for about eight years. He lived in the same house for 50 years, but one day, he didn’t recognize it. I took this photo around Christmas time and we were watching a Dodger game. Whenever I was over, we would eat Klondike bars and watch the Dodgers; they were his favorite treat and favorite team. This photo represents a gentle giant who is lost in the most familiar place in his world.

— Asia Brody, 1st place high school photo winner

My mother doesn’t know who I am. When I walk into the room, she smiles pleasantly, like she has all the time in the world for me. But I know that smile — it is the same smile she gives strangers, the same smile she gives people walking down the street. My mother calls me “molu” — sweetheart — because she is too embarrassed to admit that she does not remember my name.

My mother doesn’t know who I am, but I know who she is. She will always be my mom.

— Meryl Biju, 1st place college story winner

portrait of an older woman in a wheelchair in a large room in a high rise building with a view of a city

Photo taken by Danielle Towers

This work is about the decline of my independent, artistic, funny Grandma Gorgeous (GG). How is it possible that someone can live their whole life and suddenly have it ripped away in front of their eyes? How do you carry a conversation with the shell of your loved one? These images represent my ache to see her as she once was and also seek to honor a lifetime GG can no longer recall.

— Danielle Towers, 1st place college photo winner

Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.