Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility

Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility

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Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility

Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility

Read FREE!

Synopsis

Bringing together essays by nineteen respected scholars, this volume approaches dementia from a variety of angles, exploring its historical, psychological, and philosophical implications. The authors employ a cross-cultural perspective that is based on ethnographic fieldwork and focuses on questions of age, mind, voice, self, loss, temporality, memory, and affect.

Taken together, the essays make four important and interrelated contributions to our understanding of the mental status of the elderly. First, cross-cultural data show that the aging process, while biologically influenced, is also culturally constructed. Second, ethnographic reports raise questions about the diagnostic criteria used for defining the elderly as demented. Third, case studies show how a diagnosis affects a patient's treatment in both clinical and familial settings. Finally, the collection highlights the gap that separates current biological understandings of aging from its cultural meanings.

As Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia continue to command an ever-increasing amount of attention in medicine and psychology, this book will be essential reading for anthropologists, social scientists, and health care professionals.

Excerpt

Lawrence Cohen

Senility and Its Future

Our aims in bringing together the scholars assembled in this volume were threefold. First, we wanted to link a variety of research strategies and disciplinary vantage points in the human and social sciences in order to better understand the remaking—biological and clinical, economic and political, public and phenomenological—of the senile dementias today. Beyond the specificity of Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia, many of us have been involved in research on what I have long termed senility. By senility, I mean the perception of deleterious behavioral change in someone understood to be old, with attention to both the biology and the institutional milieu in which such change is marked, measured, researched, and treated (Cohen 1998). For us, as social scientists and humanists of medicine, to organize our conversations around senility in this sense of the word, as opposed to organizing them around dementia, is simply not to presume in advance how perception, biology, and milieu are related. This reluctance to presume, as opposed to any shibboleth of naive social construction, is what makes us careful about terms and what makes our conversation anthropological. But far-ranging and systematic conversations among scholars of senility are few.

Second, we presume that the future of senility, and clinically of the dementias, is an open one. Much is changing: state- and corporate-funded pharmaceutical, genomic, and epidemiological initiatives; instruments and regimes of health-care funding and insurance; structures and strategies of treatment and of care and their associated forms of reason; modes of therapeutic and nontherapeutic practice challenging the limits to such reason; differences and inequalities across axes of difference we attempt to capture by terms such as class . . .

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