Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Devastating Loss of Self"

While working on a new painting, I've been listening to The Myth of Alzheimer's by Peter J. Whitehouse (with Daniel George) on CD. Whitehouse, a physician, researcher, and authority on the condition, argues that there is no scientific basis for treating Alzheimer's as a disease, and that care for patients would be improved by acknowledging the symptoms of "cognitive brain aging," as he calls it, as a normal part of growing older. Rather than labeling a more rapid decline as pathologically abnormal, we can recognize that every person's progress into older years is unique, and that the challenges of aging, which we all must face, can hold opportunities, as well.

Whitehouse in large part blames the pharmacuetical industry for creating "the myth of Alzheimer's" by talking about waging war on the disease, and the (according to Whitehouse, completely unfounded) hope of a cure. But most of all, the myth of Alzheimer's creates an intense fear and dread (the reason I picked this book up off the shelf). Alzheimer's is said to result in a "devastating loss of self," robbing victims of their very personhood.

According to Whitehouse, this is simply not true. We are constantly changing throughout our lives; loss of cognitive ability does not destroy the self. Perhaps the most important component of treatment for a person in cognitive decline is to focus on the ways they are still able to contribute to society, do the things they have always enjoyed, and accept the loving care of their family members--that is, to continue to see themselves as human persons in the midst of real losses.

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The painting is coming along nicely. It's not completed yet, but when I was finished working on it for today, I stepped back to have a look and was disappointed: it was all out of focus--I had to put on my glasses to appreciate it. It was upsetting to me not being able to appreciate my own painting without the aid of corrective lenses.

There are so many things we think we own, or consider to be part of who we are, and it's scary to lose them. Who would I be without my vision, my memories, my intelligence, without the dexterity of my hands, without strength to walk and run?

Some might say we're born into this life with the very purpose of growing old--to learn by divesting ourselves of every external prop that, after all, I am not the clothes I wear or the things I own; I am not even the thoughts I think. Who I really am ...

... is beyond words and comprehension. Because after all, the soul does not exist in and of itself, but exists only by the creative act of God's love. But of such things ... it is extremely difficult to write, especially as a scrupulous Christian theologian ... if only I could commission Charles Williams to write this into a novel! Alas, he has been dead several decades. And, dying at age 58, I suppose he must have missed out on much of the experience of growing old. Well, he was surely an old soul from birth.

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