Can a Comic Book Change How We See Alzheimer's?
This graphic memoir author hopes to transform the narrative about dementia
People with Alzheimer’s are a lot like Alice in Wonderland. That’s the premise of a new “graphic medicine” memoir by Dana Walrath.
Walrath recently spoke to The New York Times about Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass, the comic book she created to capture the “magic” of her mother Alice’s memory loss. Alzheimer’s isn’t a horror story, she insists, but a sometimes frightening, sometimes wonderful adventure.
“The dominant zombie story of bodies without minds strips people with dementia of their humanity and interferes with creating new kinds of familial connections,” she says in the interview. “Life with dementia is filled with alternate realities and magic, both scary and uplifting.”
Threads Coming Together
Alzheimer’s brought Walrath closer to her mother, she says, and she hopes Aliceheimer’s helps others view the disease through a new lens. The book not only combines words and pictures in an unusual way but also taps into Walrath’s unusual background as a medical anthropologist, artist and writer.
“After a lifetime of mutually abrasive interaction, my mother moved into my home when a lock-down memory-care unit was her only other option. The years of living together not only brought us closure, but it also integrated my disparate career threads,” she says. “Medical anthropology, creative writing, visual art — who knew they were connected? I sure didn’t. But Alice must have. During dementia, she said to me, ‘You should quit your job and make art full time.’”
Walrath hadn’t heard of the graphic medicine genre when she started making her Aliceheimer’s comics. She had, however, noticed that her mother, a lifelong avid reader, was gravitating toward graphic novels when her illness made it difficult for her to follow prose.
Living in the Present
Walrath said she hopes our society can come to view people with Alzheimer’s as “useful true humans who might teach us all something about living in the present.”
And she offers this advice to caregivers: “Learn to read the signs and messages embedded in your loved one’s actions. Often what looks delusional is an attempt to express a deeply felt need or desire,” she says. “Use the ‘Yes, and’ principle from improv — in which you accept what the other person has said (‘yes’) and then expand on that line of thinking (‘and’) — to build on what your loved one is experiencing instead of contradicting them, and it will be easier to decipher his or her intentions.”
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