by Jerry Waxler
Martha Stettinius’ memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, took me on a journey in which the author had to fulfill her new role as primary caregiver. By the time I closed the book, I felt inspired and hopeful. How could a book about Alzheimer’s have that effect? Clearly she wasn’t promising that Alzheimer’s would be cured. I wondered for months how to explain the effect the book had on me. What is it about her storytelling that could possibly convert the gritty realities of a failing mind into a reason for people of good will to band together and generate hope?
Based on these considerations, I offer four philosophical conclusions. Two of them are embedded in the book itself, and two of them arise from the very fact that the book exists.
Practical Philosophy Point #1: This is still the person I love
I watched my own mother drift in and out of dementia in the last weeks of her life. Even when her words were scrambled, she was still “there” somewhere. Because the experiences were brief, I did not need to dig within myself for a deeper understanding. I just rode through each episode, never doubting our connection.
In Inside the Dementia Epidemic the downward slide took place over a much longer period, forcing this daughter to come to terms with the notion of a person who exists on the other side of a cognitive divide. In her memoir, she painstakingly traces her own path from confusion to effort and hope. To maintain her own dignity as well as her mother’s, Stettinius focuses on the love between them.
She slows down to adapt to her mother’s new speed, and allows us to slow down with her. At this more intimate pace, she discovers a heartfelt connection, unencumbered by former, edgy patterns. By relying on this core of love, the memoir offers a perspective of the self that is deeper than the one visible on the surface. Despite her mother’s weakened cognitive ability, their relationship continues to evolve.
During Stettinius’ journey, we travel with the two women along a path toward gradually increasing wisdom about contact, mutual respect and love.
Practical Philosophy Point #2: Social support is the highest good
When I was growing up, I mocked the schmaltzy song lyrics, “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” My power came from pure knowledge. I never questioned the wisdom of this self-reliant philosophy until it pushed me into such severe loneliness I thought I was losing my mind.
To escape my isolation, I was forced to reach out for help. When I did so, a few caring souls noticed my need and reached back. The nurturing of friends and supporters ushered me into a much more satisfying version of adult life. My appreciation for interdependence continues to deepen.
Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child brought attention to our shared responsibility toward children. My disastrous experiment to grow up without social support revealed that it takes a village to raise a young adult. Over the middle decades of my life, I gained an ever-increasing appreciation for the importance of the village throughout adulthood, embracing the fact that our relationships are crucial for moral, mental, and emotional survival.
Early in my memoir-reading journey, I came upon an author who spent a lifetime trying to find words to explain this need humans have for each other. In her memoir Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup loses her husband in a freak accident and must raise her children without him. To support her family, she becomes a police chaplain, a job that requires her to console people after crime, accidents and other suffering. In her darkest hour, she recognizes that the support people pour out to each other is the crucial ingredient, the antidote to evil. Through her eyes, social support is the highest moral achievement. (See my article here)
And now, in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, Martha Stettinius shows how the village plays a crucial role in aging. To care for her mother, she needed an army of helpers. By highlighting the caregivers who participated in her mother’s care, the book lifts us out of isolation and into the support of the community.
In my next post, I offer two more practical philosophy points that I derive from the book Inside the Dementia Epidemic.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
Order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.