Friday, March 21, 2014

Wandering Minds


As I read Samantha Harvey's novel The Wilderness, a novel about a man named Jake who has Alzheimer's, I find myself wondering if this degenerative "disease" is really so bad after all. Obviously it's upsetting for families to go through having a loved one sort of lose their mind. Two of my grandparents had the disease and it's hard to watch, especially when you see the confused look on their face and hear them call you someone else's name. But, it's harder for the person diagnosed as they lose their bearings and have to construct a new reality.

Jake has a very hard time coping with his diagnosis, getting frustrated at his doctor for making him do memory exercises and not completely understanding why he's making so many mistakes. They are his memories. Being an architect, he is rather logical so the fact that he is unable to logically piece things together is really messing with him: "But if he can no longer calculate or piece together through numbers then the invisible sense, the sense behind the apparently chaotic stray of branches and leaves, is gone. Order will be a dream he once had that has melted like glass, slowly and quite imperceptibly" (Harvey 122). Jake is aware that chaos is ensuing because he cannot logically piece together his memories or his reality because Alzheimer's is distorting everything. This is something I am sure everyone diagnosed with Alzheimer's experiences and I bet it's really scary. Not knowing how you got somewhere, who someone is, or if your memories can be trusted must be terrifying.

However, I think maybe there's another side to Alzheimer's that our society is vehemently rejecting. Rather than trying to fight the "disease", why don't we embrace it? What if we took the pressure off of those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's to remember things and just allowed them to walk around in their delusion? Who are we to say that their altered reality isn't as good or better than this one? For the elderly who are doomed to living in nursing homes, living in their memories is probably a lot more pleasant to experience. Jake and Eleanor (his second wife) capture this well in a brief, respective, dialogue: "'I think what I like.' 'But it isn't true'" (Harvey 246). What does it matter if Jake's memories or reality aren't what society considers "true"? He's happy reliving his past, even the bad parts, because they distract him from the fact that "reality" is so confusing and disorienting for him now. Using Bruner's ideas of reality from his article The Narrative Construction of Reality, if Jake can no longer trust his senses to logically tell him what's going on around him, then he must rely on the narrative of his memories to construct his reality. And what's so wrong with
that?

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of facilities that deal with dementia patients are starting to ask about whether or not it might be therapeutic in some cases to indulge a patient's delusions rather than try to correct them. We will be listening to a story from Radiolab about this next week. On another note, I was browsing around and saw this video from dateline or some such show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL_Gq7Shc-Y. It's interesting to me not because it is credible (I have no idea if it is an accurate simulation of either Alzheimer's or dementia), but just because of the idea that it might be useful to simulate illnesses and disorders in some way. I have seen machines that can be hooked up to men to simulate the pain of childbirth. It seems like the reason we do this is so that participants can generate empathy for sufferers of these diseases or conditions. But I wonder about that. Is dementia like a set of earphones that you can't take off? When we simulate only the horrors of the events and overlay them onto ourselves, do we accurately simulate the experience? Certainly, just feeling the pain of childbirth doesn't really come close to experiencing fully the range of feelings that accompany the experience of having a baby. I wonder if these experiments actually do generate empathy, or if they actually serve to distance the sufferer from the experimenter even more by eliciting pity? I remember Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurologist who suffered a stroke but ultimately recovered, talking in a TED talk about how she experienced her stroke as a mostly pleasant, moving, and enlightening experience. Her recovery was hard, but the stroke itself was just different than her regular way of seeing, and she said she was sort of bummed when people came at her with these looks of horror and sadness and pity. Anyway, I wonder about all of the value-laden language that we employ when we think about disease and disability, and wonder if in some cases it might help to think of experiences as qualitatively different rather than quantitatively better or worse. However, I don't want to diminish the fact that disease sucks and rips apart families and brings grief and all of that... complicated...

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