My mother and grandmother died of Alzheimer's so Social Worker Lisa Snyder's book Speaking Our Minds had particular meaning for me. The first edition was published in 1999. Since that time number of people with this progressive dementia has increased rapidly, as preventable and treatable illnesses have receded as causes of mortality. However for the most part, beliefs about Alzheimer's and attitudes towards it have not kept pace with its increasing prevalence. This is something Lisa Snyder seeks to address with her collection of seven first person accounts told, as much as possible in the words of people with Alzheimer's. Snyder works for a research facility in San Diego, a facility that values research into the lived experience of Alzheimer's as much as the neurobiology. Speaking Our Minds provides an insider's perspective of what can be a devastating illness. However with Snyder's support the personal experience of Alzheimer's takes center stage, and readers are introduced to the variety of manifestations and human responses.
Snyder is keen to challenge the commonly held view that a diagnosis of Alzheimer's means only an inevitable process of loss. Her case studies show individuals and couples adapting in ways that suit their personal philosophies and life patterns. There is certainly a theme of loss. Alzheimer's is after all characterized by deterioration in memory. But the losses are not as complete and overwhelming as we might suppose, at least in the early stages. Something that is clearly not lost is humor, and many of the people Snyder interviewed use humor as a means of coming to terms with the changes in their lives. It can be disarming to read of someone both able to reflect on the nature of Alzheimer's and to poke fun at themselves and the earnest interviewer intent on capturing their stories. Snyder is a sympathetic and attentive listener and commentator, something which no doubt helped this cast of characters to speak so freely. Each chapter is given to one individual, and contains a brief background, followed by first person narratives interspersed with Snyder's observations. Snyder always engages with her participants. Her accessible writing helps the reader feel at home is each individual's lounge room, and in step with the rhythm of their lives. Snyder is realistic about the difficulties experienced by her interviewees. She is alive to their uniqueness, and sensitive to their sorrows.
Speaking Our Minds contains a brief introduction and closing commentary, but the heart of the book is the case studies. As Steven Sabat notes in the foreword, the book would not have been possible without the generosity, courage and trust of the seven people and their partners and families who agreed to share their lives with Snyder and her readers. Bea and Joe, Bill and Kathleen, Jean and her family, Bob and Erika, Booker and Brenda, Betty and Kurt, and Consuelo have brought the experience of Alzheimer's out of the shade and into the light of day. People with Alzheimer's and their families need professionals like Lisa Snyder to provide the emotional support and opportunity to speak that Alzheimer's, and attitudes towards it, too often denies.
© 2010 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, firstname.lastname@example.org