April 24, 2012

The profile of dementia in the arts has been slowly increasing.

Just over two years ago I saw Tamsin Oglesby’s play Really Old, Like Forty Five at The Cottlesloe Theatre London, which addressed the need to treat those who are old, and particularly those with dementia, as human beings. A current play, at the Toynbee Studios, Autobiographer, by Melanie Wilson, brings dementia back to the stage, with Alzheimer’s as the central theme.

Dementia is becoming more than a statistic, as the incidence increases exponentially, and thereby the likelihood than we ourselves or those close to us will be affected at some point. ‘Losing one’s mind’ is something we all fear, and dementia, characterised by memory loss, and loss of self, strikes at the very core of who we are and what defines us both as collectively human and as an individual. It challenges not only the identity of the individual, but how society interacts with that individual, who has become unrecognisable, remote, as if ‘replaced’ by someone we think we should know, but struggle to deal with the visible disintegration of a self.

It is this dead-end and seemingly pointless dualism, the fragmenting of the mind while the body nonchalantly continues intact, that terrifies. In terms of experience of illness narratives, the personal story of dementia falls within Arthur Frank’s chaos story classification – truly chaotic and therefore almost beyond telling. As a result, dementia autobiographies/pathographies are rare once the condition takes hold (there have been some, for example Bryden, C. Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia; DeBaggio, T. Losing My Mind; and of course Terry Pratchett), and more often the story becomes a third party, family/carer, biographical one, or a work of fiction.

Perhaps it does not matter whose story it is, so long as it is told. 

This week, I will muse on the current play Autobiographer, which I have just seen and loved, the upcoming Louis Theroux TV programme on dementia, and a current retrospective of William Utermohlen, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, at GV Art London.

It is good to see dementia/Alzheimer’s disease acknowledged and out there.