MMU Student Press Office journalist, Megan Lucie Adams, gives us a first-hand account of Alzheimer’s Culture by Dr Lucy Burke – Monday, 4th February, 2013
It is often a label that we find hard to understand and many fail to comprehend what Alzheimer’s actually refers to. Many may believe they know, thanks to the press, popular culture and literature, however, it is a widely incorrectly used term of which is used to describe and label degenerative loss of memory. ‘Alzheimer’s is everywhere’, Dr Lucy Burke from the Department of English told us. The ‘us’ in this article in fact refers to the lecture theatre of utterly engrossed attendees to the Alzheimer’s culture seminar this Monday.
Introduced by Professor Berthold Schoene, Dr Lucy Burke informed and argued a paper lending itself to the Ethical Issues in Humanities and Social Science Research Strand of the Humanities Research Program. In it, Dr Burke spoke of the representation of Alzheimer’s and ethical questions this raised in life writing and fictional literary texts, and in particular wrote about the idea that dementia, from which Alzheimer’s stems, is ‘no longer perceived to be a natural consequence of aging’ (Dr Lucy Burke, Alzheimer’s Culture 2013). Instead, this has now become a medical term for which we use as a label to those who are seen to have a mental disease. The shift in perceptions of Alzheimer’s was clear from the research; it has come to be an umbrella term and one that represents a high number of strands and different medical provisions. Dr Burke spoke about the complexities that it indeed ensued due to the cultural shift and new ideas that it has brought with it, but also how these impacted on ourselves. The highly informative and incredibly relevant paper used a number of examples in order to show us the impact of the advances of medicine and the juxtaposition of the person as a being and the person as a medical term.
The most interesting example of this juxtaposition arrived in the form of Iris Murdoch’s brain. She was a prolific writer of the 20th century and yet her donation to medical science in fact turned her into a specimen and sample of science. Dr Burke offered examples from John Cornwall’s ‘Lessons from a Tragedy’ that was published in the Sunday Times in 2005. In it, he offered two very different examples of a creative body, one of a woman who he saw walk into a university office, and another as a matter of science, a ‘gross density of grey matter’, stripped of her humanity due a term that was given to the plaques present on the MRI scans of her brain. It was argued in both Dr Burke’s paper and also questioned in the media of the Murdoch’s “saintliness” and the idea that this donation was much more than an experiment, but a sacrifice for which awareness to the ‘disease’ and research could now begin with great media coverage.
The seminar also spoke of the way in which recent representations have come to dehumanise the ‘sufferer’ and depict them as the living dead. It was in the question and answer section of this seminar that I began to think of my grandfather, who suffered from senile dementia, and how he was represented by those around him and by the media. The reactions from participants were very different; one speaker shared how on a relative’s death certificate the cause of her death was in fact listed as Alzheimer’s, simply because she had a form of dementia. The conclusion that was put forward from this was that the term Alzheimer’s is more commonly known than it is actually diagnosed, due to the attraction of research. Dr Lucy Burke stated that, ‘The shorthand, culturally, is to say that everything is Alzheimer’s’, as once we label something as a disease it becomes a powerful category to which we attract attention.
The seminar was informative, eloquent and passionate, and as a granddaughter who had to sit and listen to people label her grandfather as a vegetating eighty something with no dignity left, Dr Lucy Burke reminded me that I saw nothing but a great, proud and loving person who had simply been a victim of cultural labeling. Yes, there may be proof that dementia did and does have something to play in the death of some people; however, life writing has become a way of perhaps offering a little understanding into a person rather than their disease.