With Julie Christie up for Best Actress at the Oscars last night, you knew there was going to be an Alzheimer’s joke. Remarkably, host Jon Stewart found a way to make a joke that wasn’t at the expense of people with dementia. When he mentioned Julie Christie’s nomination, he said “a film about a woman who forgets her husband — Hillary Clinton calls it the feel good movie of the year.” Thank you Jon…you managed to honor the film, the performance, and people with dementia and tell a joke at the same time. And as I’ve said before…we have to laugh.
Archive for February, 2008
I think we’re starting to see the push back on aging and memory loss. In Carved in Sand, Catherine Ramin Jakobson provocatively notes that when our eyes begin to change in our 40s and 50s, we reach for reading glasses. But when we start to notice memory loss, we simultaneously panic and joke, but don’t seek out solutions. Now with Peter Whitehouse and Danny George’s The Myth of Alzheimer’s, Martha Weinman Lear’s Where Did I Leave My Glasses? Carved in Sand, and several articles like this one from today’s Chicago Trib, I think we’re just starting to see the change. Some memory loss with age is normal. And there are things you can do about it. Might it help lessen the panic and stigma of dementia?
There’s a brewhaha over Julie Christie’s little throw-away line after she accepted the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actress. Apparently, she made a joke about forgetting to name some of the people she should have thanked. The article quotes Peter Braun, who runs the California Southland chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association who said: “It is no laughing matter. People don’t laugh about cancer; people don’t laugh about AIDS. We call on the academy to use this moment for good, as it has done for so many other social causes.”
But people do laugh. And they have to, just to stay sane and release a little stress and tension. Angels in America is one of the funniest, saddest, most powerful pieces of American theatre – ever. And it’s about AIDS. I do understand Braun’s point. There are jokes about “senior moments” that don’t do justice to the grief and loss that can accompany a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Laughter certainly can’t be the ONLY response. But if we ban laughter, we ban the full human response to the experience of dementia. When it comes to Alzheimer’s, as my friend Karen Stobbe says, “Sometimes, ya gotta laugh.”
Martha Weinman Lear was on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air on Feb. 15th. She has a new book called Where Did I Leave My Glasses? that explores the how and why of normal memory loss. Lear is an accomplished writer and the age in her voice gives her a gravitas that Catherine Ramin Jakobson’s (who is a worried, early middle ager) Carved In Sand is missing.
Lear’s explanations of how memory functions and how it makes us worry when it slows down, are enormously calming in their clarity. The sample chapter on the NPR site is similarly lively, inventive, and similarly clear and calm. She describes it as “not really loss,” but a “slowing down.” She (and the experts she interviews) urges people to focus, not multi-task.
Here was my favorite line…”my memory is better because of relaxing about it.”
The project began two years ago when StoryCorps committed to making their moving and powerful interview process accessible to people with memory loss. All their facilitators are trained to understand dementia and how to adapt interview techniques for people with memory loss. The StoryCorps website has interview tips for MLI interviews as well, and Zempsky does fulltime outreach to invite people with memory loss to come to the booth — or brings the booth to them.
The stories StoryCorps has cut from these interviews capture the both the ordinariness of people with ML — their passion, humor, regrets, hopes, and everyday tales– as well as their extraordinariness — their fighting spirit and unique view of life.