Renée L. Beard


On her book Living with Alzheimer’s: Managing Memory Loss, Identity, and Illness

Cover Interview of February 08, 2017

The wide angle

I’ve always had an affinity for older people. My first job as a teenager was working in a nursing home where I met a woman who had what was then called “Oldtimers.” She was sequestered far away from the nurses’ station and all social spaces because staff and residents alike were convinced that she was “not there.” My experiences told me otherwise and that has stayed with me to this day. Through my undergraduate training, I was drawn to the sociology of aging and followed it through to a Ph.D. in medical sociology. This book is the logical conclusion of my doctoral research project translated for readers beyond my own subspecialty, updated, and including a wider context. The primary themes of the book are ageism and the medicalization of memory loss as a specific example of how insidious ageism can be.

In the 1980s, Alzheimer’s disease went from an extremely rare disease found in 50-year-olds to a leading cause of death for older people and replaced what used to be a normal part of aging – senility (or Oldtimers). Since then, the primary topic of interest has been diagnostic tools to identify AD earlier and earlier and even before it is detectable by the average person. I argue that this is an example of medicalization that has not worked particularly well for affected parties. Over 100 years after first being described, we don’t know what causes it or how to classify it, efficacious medications do not exist, and a definitive diagnosis remains possible only upon autopsy.

The other primary theme is ageism. In a culture where people are valued according to youthfulness, social interaction is challenging enough for American seniors with keen memories. When strict normative expectations of communication, interaction and “reality” are also present, then the status of nonperson is ascribed to any individual who is deemed cognitively impaired. What I am arguing is that we – the well-intended public – are the problem. Our own cultural reticence translates too easily into individual unwillingness to join people with dementia where they are. Since we are socialized to believe dementia represents a particularly horrifying state, the biggest barrier to a meaningful life in spite of Alzheimer’s is the fear of unimpaired others. We would do well then, I believe, to learn from my respondents for whom life – while decidedly more challenging – is far from over.