In today’s New York Times, Margaret Morganroth Gullette of Brandeis University takes on the stigma of forgetfulness in older adults. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/opinion/22gullette.html?_r=1&ref=opinion )
“Greater public awareness of Alzheimer’s, far from reducing the ignorance and stigma around the disease, has increased it. People over 55 dread getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease…The fact that only 1 in 8 Americans older than 65 has Alzheimer’s fails to register.”
Professor Gullette goes on to discuss how dementia is depicted in the arts, with dramatic characters often driven to suicide, even when their forgetfulness is minimal.
She then reminds us that forgetfulness is a disability that does not have to spell the end of life enjoyment. She talks of her mother’s life with dementia, the upside of some of her forgetting, and the surprises her “capacious” mind continued to generate.
She also reminds us of something the press too often ignores: the growing movement of people from Tom Kitwood to Anne Basting, who have found new approaches to enable and re-able people living with dementia, by recognizing their personhood and their capacities for growth and well-being.
All of this got me thinking about this prevalent stigma toward forgetting. Not to suggest that Alzheimer’s is an easy life, but our whole societal view–and the biomedical approach that predominates–sees people purely from the standpoint of loss. Reading the editorial brought home to me the impact of ageism on our view of the forgetfulness of aging, both due to dementia or less significant causes.
Alzheimer’s and ageism go hand-in-hand. The label of a “cognitive deficit” is one more tool we often use to disempower and disregard the needs of older adults. As we challenge the myths of Alzheimer’s, we must continue to challenge the supposition that older adults–especially those who are forgetful–have little to offer.
Coincidentally, today’s paper also reviews Albert Brooks’ new satirical (I hope) novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens, about the time when cancer is cured and older adults begin to drain the resources of society, subjecting them to violence from American youth.
Time for society to heed Professor Gullette’s call to create a new dialogue that will “enable adults to look forward to getting older with hope instead of despair.”