Dementia Patients Aren't in Their 'Perfect Mind.' Then Again, Who Is?

Jennifer

Reading — Advanced Level
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What does it mean “to go away”? What parts of us are snatched away by Alzheimer’s and what parts remain? In a searching, poetic inquiry into dementia, Lynn Casteel Harper delves into a disease that afflicts some six million Americans and yet seems shrouded in secrecy, its sufferers hidden away in institutions, its symptoms cloaked in a peculiar, telling language of terror and contempt. “A thief, kidnapper, slow-motion murderer, Alzheimer’s purportedly robs, steals and erases one’s memory, mind, personality — even one’s very self,” Harper writes in “On Vanishing.” “That persons with dementia are so readily envisioned as vanished or vanishing, succumbing to an especially terrifying, slow-moving, unstoppable vortex of suffering, surely speaks to anxieties beyond the ordinary fears of death and disease.”

Harper has worked with dementia patients as a nursing home chaplain and seen dementia-related deaths in her family. While working on the book, she learned that both of her parents carry one copy of a gene variant linked to late-onset Alzheimer’s disease: “I have a 50 percent chance of having a single copy of the gene, which doubles or triples my risk of developing the disease. I have a 25 percent chance of having two copies, which elevates my risk by eight to 12 times, giving me a 51 to 68 percent chance of having Alzheimer’s by the time I am 85.”

She writes without fear or aversion but with a robust, restless curiosity, a keenness to reframe our understanding of dementia with sensitivity and accuracy. She has not merely observed decline in patients and family members; she has also observed fresh opportunities for “compassion, honesty, humility.” The writer Floyd Skloot described his own dementia by saying, “I have been rewoven.” He was astonished to find his bonds with his family deepening: “Love and passion entered my life for the first time in decades.” The dementia activist and author Kate Swaffer confessed the same to Harper, marveling at a new clarity and sense of purpose. “Dementia is full of paradoxes,” she reported. “I know so much more than I did before.”
  1. "Parts of us are snatched away by Alzheimer's." This sentence implies that  

  • People with dementia are envisioned as vanishing.
    A "vanishing person" is  

  • A person with anxiety is  

  • Dementia has afflicted millions of Americans and yet seems to be "shrouded in secrecy."
    "Shrouded in secrecy" could mean that  

  • "Dementia is full of paradoxes."
    "Paradox" means  

  • Discussion

    Practice your writing skills by discussing the questions below


    1. What makes dementia life threatening?

    2. How should we deal with people suffering from dementia?

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