Tony Luciani first fell in love with photography after his mother, Elia, fell and broke her hip.
While she was recovering, it became obvious that her memory was noticeably deteriorating, so her brother suggested moving her into a retirement home. But Tony, a full-time painter who worked from home, wouldn't hear of it. He knew that he should be the one to care for her.
Coincidentally, it was around that time that Tony bought a camera to take photos of his artwork.
One day, he was trying out the camera, taking photos in a mirror, when his mom came up to use the bathroom. He told her, "Five more minutes," but after that turned into an hour, he noticed his mom peeking around the corner to see if he was done yet. He caught it on camera.
"Photo Bombing Momma." All photos by Tony Luciani, used with permission.
"Then she jumped out in front and put her hands up in the air and started going 'blah blah blah blah!' and then waved," says Tony. "And I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so great.'"
The hilarious encounter was the catalyst for Tony's first photo series, "Mamma: In the Meantime."
Elia holding up a mirror with an image of herself as a child in it.
The collaboration between mother and son was a most symbiotic relationship. It reignited Elia's sense of purpose and Tony had an eager, full-time model at his disposal.
"It got to the point where I’d be painting and she’d come over to me and say, 'OK, I’m bored. Let’s do some pictures,'" Tony recalls.
The series was meant to be an homage to her life as well as the struggles of living with dementia. Her memory was leaving her, so he wanted to record as much as she could remember before it was totally lost.
"She’d tell me these stories, and I would jot the ideas down and come up with visuals in my head," Tony says.
When a child has a child. Elia standing with her walker.
"What she remembers most is when she was a little girl," he continues. "She doesn’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago, but she does remember what happened 70, 80 years ago."
Hearing the stories of her youth was especially rewarding for Tony because when he was a kid, she had worked long hours in a sewing factory, so he didn't get to spend much time with her. However, her dedication to her job always impressed him.
Elia was in charge of her entire floor which included 50 sewers who spoke a number of different languages. She actually took it upon herself to learn eight or nine languages just so she could properly communicate with them.
But despite all her language prowess, she'd never really traveled. So Tony took her on a world tour — through photos.
Elia in Egypt.
While they didn't really travel to far-away places — thanks to image editing software — they may as well have, considering the fun they had getting the shots.
Elia in Paris.
"The process of getting the end results is what I remember the most," Tony says. "The laughter and the giggling and the craziness."
Elia balancing on the Great Wall of China.
And as the photos show, his mom had a great time too.
"She felt worthy again," Tony says. "Like her life wasn’t over. And her life isn’t over — and she’s proved that over and over again."
While caring for his mother hasn't always been easy for Tony, what he got in return far outweighed any inconvenience.
Tony and Elia's hands.
Aside from a number of incredible photo series and his mom's memories beautifully immortalized, Tony has also connected with many other people who've either been caregivers or are about to become caregivers.
It all came out of the simple act of posting his photos in photography forums to get feedback on how he could improve his technique.
"I had photographers saying, 'Oh my gosh, I wish I had done that with my mother or grandmother, but I will do that with my aunt or another loved one.' I think I encouraged people just by posting my photos."
Sadly, Elia no longer remembers her son's name, but Tony is so grateful for the three years he got to spend saying goodbye to her.
"She Ain't Heavy." Elia in Tony's arms.
"My dad died, and I wasn’t there," Tony says. "My brother passed away 15 years ago, and I wasn’t there. I never had the chance to say goodbye. This is my chance to say goodbye, even though she might outlive us all."
When children become their parents' caregivers, there can be many challenges, even if they don't have a degenerative disease like dementia. It can become easy to view them as a stressor or an inconvenience.
Tony's experience with his mother is a testament to what happens when you don't do that. When you listen to your aging loved one and try to find a way to connect with them again, it can change everything.
Even if you don't create art, the effort will leave you with incredible new memories — the likes of which you may have never imagined.