The Person in Dementia

This week, World Alzheimer’s Day was recognized across the globe. The 2010 theme was “Dementia: It’s Time for Action!” and Alzheimer associations everywhere emphasized the need for governments and the general public to take any action possible to raise awareness of dementia and to improve service provision for people with dementia, as well as those who provide care.

The statistics surrounding Alzheimer’s are shocking:

  • close to 36 million people worldwide live with dementia today
  • every 71 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s affects about 10 percent of people ages 65 and up
  • dementia care costs around 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) or 604 billion US dollars
  • at current rates, as many as 16 million Americans will have the disease by the year 2050

Given the theme of this year’s World Alzheimer’s Day, and the need to help raise awareness, we thought it would be worthwhile mentioning Athena McLean’s extremely important book, The Person in Dementia: A Study of Nursing Home Care in the US. This book recently won the prestigious New Millennium Book Award, which is presented by the Society for Medical Anthropology to an author whose work is judged to be the most significant and potentially influential contribution to medical anthropology in recent years. At the award ceremony, the following comments were made by the presenter:

This year, we chose a book that, in both study design and writing, demonstrates the author’s great sensitivity to her complex and sometimes confused research subjects who are living with dementia. The ethnographic data in this work are fascinating. But the author’s comparative approach to two units in a nursing home—one of which allowed care-givers greater latitude for clients’ individual desires—helped accentuate the moral economy of care within these settings, the policy and structures under which staff operates, and the precarious fate that many demented nursing home residents face when their very personhood is ignored by stressed care-givers. We felt this book stood out above others for its sincere and profound application of the ethnographic method, for the model it provides in anthropological research design, and for its ability to surprise, capture, and transform the reader on a subject too long hidden but which lies in the futures of many of us.

We hope that everyone will read this book, or at least pass on information about the book to those who might be interested. It includes policy recommendations that are geared to long-term care administrators and policy-makers, as well as to caregivers, families, and elder with dementia. It’s a book that makes a serious contribution!


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