Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the unbearable lightness of dementia


Nothingness haunts being. 
Sartre claims we yearn for a solidity that always evades us, that however much we are established as, say, a Respected Judge, Competitive Businessman, Resolute Defender, Caring Father, Creative Artist, or even Innovative Pornographer, there is a part of us that knows it is all a pretense  We long for the comfort of knowing that we simply are whatever we are, to be one indisputable thing, in the way, say, that a rock is unchangingly a rock. We long for the solidity of objects. We desire to inhabit our being confidently and effortlessly (the French say "to feel good in one's skin), but our ease is ever eroded by the knowledge that we built our identity ourselves, on a foundation of nothingness. This is existential angst. Our lives are spent fleeing from this reality.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you ever feel exhausted by the effort of simply maintaining your own identity in the society of others? Does the foundational flimsiness of your identity prick your confidence from time to time?

Maybe this is what it is like to experience dementia. As our memory and cognitive agility declines, we lose our ability to maintain a solid fa├žade of identity. Like cold winter wind through a broken attic window, Nothingness creeps in, . Life, once solid-seeming, begins to lose its substance. Anxiety, which we had to this point always managed to suppress and conceal from ourselves, now begins to overwhelm. It's the same anxiousness, fear, and nausea hiding in all of us, only unleashed.

Maybe this is why people with dementia sometimes retreat into the well established patterns of their youth. Perhaps, searching for solidity, they lean on whatever ways of thinking are still most intact. Neural pathways established earlier and reinforced over a lifetime are the strongest.

Maybe this is why doll therapy is sometimes effective for people with Alzheimer's disease, because it taps into primal drives to care and protect children. Perhaps these basic drives are solid-feeling and therefore comforting.


If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

2 comments:

  1. Maybe that is why doll therapy works, or maybe it is the intrinsic human need for physical contact and comfort at a frightening and confusing time in their lives.

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  2. Indeed true. I'm trying here to imagine what it is that drives people with dementia to comfort, and proposing that it might be something familiar, rather than alien: existential fear. Only amplified.

    As to the source of the comfort, I'm proposing that innate, perhaps genetically rooted, drives to care for children may be among the last remaining sources of solidity in identities being consumed by dementia.

    I'm not suggesting people with dementia are retreating into childhood, rather that they are responding in an understandable and very human way to a deeply frightening and lonely situation.

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