I’ve always thought that fiction can teach us as much as non-fiction about life, if not more. A medical book about dementia might give you the facts, but, if you really want to understand the disease, Margaret Mahy‘s young adult novel Memory is hard to beat.
Kate de Goldi and Dr. Helena Popovic both have parents with dementia and they both turned to words to help them deal with it, though in different ways. In a session at the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival they talked about their books and their personal experiences of this cruel disease.
Popovic is an Australian doctor whose book In Search of my Father weaves story and science. De Goldi turned wholly to story, writing a powerful children’s book about a young girl and her grandmother.
She had always wanted to write an ABC, but the idea of locating this ultimate way of ordering things in a dementia unit where disorder rules only crystallized after the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake.
De Goldi was in Christchurch at the time, helping to move her mother into a rest home. While running beside the river De Goldi noticed large cracks in the road and this started her thinking about cracks in the community and in her mother’s mind.
The ACB with Honora Lee mixes comedy and sadness, and many of the scenes will resonate strongly with anyone who has experience of the struggle to extract meaning from the fragments of language dementia sufferers utter. As de Goldi says “You could almost say dementia is like a book and you’re trying to complete what they’re saying”.
Popovic, asked to define dementia, offered “progressive mental decline that interferes with daily function”. As she said, this is a vague definition but until now dementia in all it forms has been regarded as irreversible. Popovic does not agree. She thinks there is a lot we can do to improve our brain function.
Physical exercise, social and mental stimulation all help and it seems that striving to learn a new skill is enough – you don’t have to become expert in it. After being almost inspired to try one of the projects in Rosemary McLeod’s beautiful book With Bold Needle and Thread this was a great relief to me.
Popovic also thinks the phrase ‘senior moment’ should be banned as sometimes we speak things into existence. A lot can be done to prevent dementia and to improve our brain function in middle-age. She believes there should be a comprehensive campaign along the lines of the stop smoking and drive safely campaigns – cognitive decline is not inevitable.
Not a snappy sentence but a reassuring one.