I know why they did it. Gene Wilder was a beloved celebrity, and when he died in 2016, the world (that follows western pop culture) felt they lost one of the good ones. He died with Alzheimer’s.
They couldn’t resist the power of the celebrity story to convey their message.
In 2017, the Alzheimer’s Association in the United States thought up a new marketing campaign called #pureimagination that built on the public’s fondness for Wilder and for his iconic character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the video created for the campaign, we see clips of the film, a technicolor fantasy where sweets grow on trees that bower over a river of chocolate. It is a world of imagination.
“Come with me, and you’ll see, a land of pure imagination…” sings Wonka, ambling calmly through the world he created, the children and their parents greedily chomping on everything they can find.
In this video though, the items disappear just as they take a bite. And in the background, candy apples disappear from trees. Multicolor pumpkins filled with jelly fade to nothing.
So too, the Alzheimer’s Association is telling us, do we when we have Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s steals your imagination piece by piece,” it says in bold white letters on the purple background.
“But with your help, imagine how we can end it.”
How will they “end” it? What is the plan?
Forty-seven million people have dementia across the world. This is projected to triple by 2050. Thus far, the only decline in these numbers have been attributed to a bump in the early childhood education of the current generation of elders with the diagnosis – not any of the treatments on the market.
Clearly, we need to invest in research to prevent and delay the symptoms. Clearly, we need to better understand how the brain works and what the mechanisms are behind the progression of symptoms. And we need to invest more than we are now.
But for those 47 million people who currently have the symptoms, imagination is exactly what works to help them feel connected to themselves and to others around them. Imagination is a remaining strength that can be exercised like a muscle. Family members and friends who mourn the loss of shared stories of the past that connect them to the person with dementia can learn to shift toward creativity to find emotional connection, to play, to create new moments and experiences together.
I have not agreed with the Alzheimer’s Association’s fear-based, stigma-fueling marketing campaign for many years. But this one feels particularly egregious. They don’t need to steal the one hope families have for meaningful connection in order to feed dollars into their research machine.
I offer my revision:
Come with me, and you’ll see, a land of pure imagination
a place where we
Can be free
And feel comfort and connection.
Imagine how we can transform dementia care by infusing creativity into our everyday exchanges, our programming. Imagine how people with dementia can draw their families and friends together again, out of their grief and fear, into the moment of shared imagination.