Joyce Terhaar

Candor and trust mattered in Alzheimer’s coverage

Grandison Turner, known as Junior, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a decade ago. Before his illness, he spent his life working hard, and was known in their Strawberry Manor neighborhood as a family man and a good provider. “The compassion for the guy I love – that’s why I keep him here,” Juanita said.
Grandison Turner, known as Junior, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a decade ago. Before his illness, he spent his life working hard, and was known in their Strawberry Manor neighborhood as a family man and a good provider. “The compassion for the guy I love – that’s why I keep him here,” Juanita said. lsterling@sacbee.com

The video was beautiful. Juanita Turner’s words were direct and honest as she described what it has been like for her to care for her husband as Alzheimer’s gradually robs him of the ability to talk, to eat, to walk.

Sacramento Bee photographer Lezlie Sterling had captured Turner’s words, along with video and photographs of the daily life of her husband, Grandison Turner, as part of an ongoing series of stories about Alzheimer’s written by Anita Creamer.

The video was ready to go when Mark Morris, The Bee’s senior editor for multimedia, asked me to review it given the extremely personal nature of the images. I watched it the way an editor does, perhaps a step removed from the emotion, looking for anything that might offend a reader, or take advantage of the access we were given by the Turners. And then I saw an image I thought we needed to discuss: Grandison Turner, after his shower, clothed only in an adult diaper.

Every editor has a different perspective when he or she evaluates a story or image to ensure it is fair to those involved and that it meets a community standard of taste. We ask ourselves and each other many questions. Among them is one designed to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes: What if that photograph were of my father or mother? Would the decision to publish it be different? Is there a difference between publishing it within a video as compared with an image in the printed newspaper?

When stories are extremely personal and not connected to the news – as this one was – I also want to know whether the subject of a story understands what it means to be featured in The Bee, and how they think our coverage will play out. We want to avoid blindsiding someone.

Sue Morrow, our deputy director of multimedia, produced the video and edited the photography. She paid close attention to which images were used in print vs. video and worked with Sterling to ensure they were handled sensitively.

The difference in medium matters: “Photographs published in print have an inherent permanence because the viewer has the ability to stop and study a picture, read the caption and then look at the photograph some more,” Morrow said. “Visuals watched in a video player are more experiential. Audio is a key element because it has the ability to a create a deep emotional response which elevates the experience.”

As she worked with Sterling, Morrow kept in mind the reason Juanita Turner gave us access. “She wanted (everyone) to understand the raw realities of Alzheimer’s.”

That reality includes complete care, every single day. Juanita Turner talked about all of it openly.

“In the video, we hear Juanita Turner’s gentle voice describing her son giving his dad a shower and how they help one another change Grandison’s diapers. It’s powerful storytelling to see what they are talking about and each still photograph is viewed for a matter of seconds, which is different than print,” Morrow said.

Creamer and Sterling already had spent quite a bit of time with the Turners when I first saw the video. Even so, we wanted to touch base one last time. Sterling called Juanita Turner, who invited her for tea. “I showed her the picture and she said, that’s reality, that’s what we go through. That’s our life,” Sterling said.

The family wanted the community to understand what happens when Alzheimer’s strikes, what it does, what it looks like and just how tough it makes each day, Sterling said. Alzheimer’s robs you of everything – including the ability to be embarrassed by a photograph or understand a story.

Our work should not, however, then rob someone of all remaining dignity. Sterling said her goal was to “preserve his dignity but also show the plight they’re going through.” After much conversation, we decided the video image was appropriate for this story.

Sterling told me last week she was humbled and honored by the trust Juanita Turner showed in her as she allowed Sterling to photograph intimate moments of their daily routine.

I reached Juanita Turner by phone and again heard the word “trust.”

“The feeling I got from Anita and Lezlie, they showed lots of love” as they talked with the family and did their work, she said. “I didn’t have any problem with trusting their judgment.”

Juanita Turner said she was overwhelmed by the coverage once it was published. That first day she took her husband to church and received widespread support. Everyone had seen the story, including friends and relatives from Texas and Alabama, she said.

“When I got home I could not believe it. Somebody had stopped by to drop off Pampers, lotion, wipes, and it’s still coming in. Every time I meet somebody I know, they tell me they loved that story,” she said. “The support from people, it was wonderful. It’s the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”

While Juanita Turner told me how much she appreciated Creamer and Sterling’s work, and the judgment they used to tell her story, she is the hero here. Her decision to tell the story of her husband’s illness with candor as well as love shows a path for Alzheimer’s care for all who read her story.

Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.

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