A Review of Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s by Lauren Kessler
Almost everyone I speak with has a fear of becoming stricken with Alzheimer’s or live with the bad memories of their mother, uncle or grandparent suffering from it. For many who have watched the descent into this illness, their witnessing of it has so unsettled them they cannot even bear to discuss it. There is, I am happy to report, an antidote to the fear as well as to the anxiety we all may feel about the illness.
Lauren Kessler’s book, Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s: One Daughter’s Hopeful Story is that antidote. It takes the reader beyond hopeful and into the territory of wonderment. I picked up the book with some trepidation and read through it with some actual joy, some real horror and then with the achievement of Kessler’s promise—finding the hope in that other land none of us thinks we ever want to travel to.
Along the way, some marvelous storytelling is provided. For one thing, Kessler, in the manner of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book , Nickel and Dimed, takes a job as a caregiver at a facility where those with Alzheimer’s live. Unlike Ehrenreich, though, Kessler does not approach this incognito nor is she investigating how one lives on the salary of such a class of workers. Rather, Kessler is investigating, among other things, what it is like to do the work of caring for the growing numbers of people, men and women, who suffer from this illness. What she discovers and describes with great care and empathy is the remarkable resilience of the women who do this work. We learn as she does just how burdened they are by their own difficult lives which may include financial problems, low educational levels as well as children who need caretaking too. The stress of the job is then added to the stress of the lives these workers lead. It is no wonder that the turnover rate is high. Yet, Kessler, our narrator, who is an A plus personality type and a college professor, brings to the job of care giving as well as to reporting on it a total sympathy for those who have no real options but to work for these ridiculously low wages and try to hold their lives together while taking care of an ever growing population of those in need.
Kessler’s journey into this world began out of a sense of remorse and guilt. Her mother had died of Alzheimer’s and in telling the story of that experience, one can see the remarkable difference between how difficult it is when it is one’s mother and when those in one’s charge are strangers. Yet, she performs all the tasks any caregiver would have to perform in an assisted living facility with a gleeful desire to be the best and to be acknowledged as such. When she lists the number of tasks that must be performed each and every day and mostly by herself, it boggles this reader’s mind as to how anyone realistically could do this work for any length of time. In fact, one of the things she does remark upon is the turnover in this work, how frequently the staff changes and needs to be trained. It was no surprise to me, and I am sure most readers will feel the full weight of the emotional and physical challenges anyone in this line of work must accept. Kessler is that good at describing all that it involves and how it feels to be so intimately acquainted with the bodily functions of perfect strangers while needing to perform those tasks with a number of people daily and to do it well. Just the energy it takes to move a patient from a wheelchair onto a toilet and clean up after them, which Kessler describes in the kind of detail we would not know otherwise, made me feel tired.
Kessler had other goals in mind as well while reporting on this population. She also interviewed family members to find out how they dealt with this illness and how they felt towards the patient with Alzheimer’s. There are surprises in these interviews that are worth not giving away. Suffice it to say that without these interviews the book might have just been a quick, I did this and this is what it was like assemblage of experiences. However, by providing the interviews with family members, it is possible to see the varieties of ways in which this illness is dealt with by those who do not have it and do not have the same reaction that Kessler had to her mother.
What Kessler also discovers in the few weeks she spends with these patients is that we are being terrorized into thinking that this is an illness and that there are ways to forestall it if not overcome it by the people looking to make a buck off that fear. For all those who tout brain gyms and all the funding that is going into the pharmaceutical industry and their research for a pill to alleviate it, we cannot be sure that it is even a real illness. Yet, that fear that it might strike us is ever present.
But I think what sets this book apart is that you come away with a very different idea as to what Alzheimer’s is. The people Kessler helped to take care of allowed her entrance into their world. Or maybe it is that she asked to be let in and they allowed her entrance because of the generosity of her heart. Once finding her way into their world, the things she discovers and writes about should be the opening to a national discussion on this illness. Due to the fact that the predictions for its incidence are growing while we live in fear of it, our denial becomes a dismissal of the storms that are brewing but could be diverted. Not unlike those who didn’t want to look at the indicators of our current economic meltdown because it was either too frightening or too complex, we tend to dismiss this national discussion out of the same combination of denial and fear that causes all meltdowns to be much worse than they have to be.
With guides like Kessler, though, we do not have to succumb to fear. By reading this book, we can discover how to ask the difficult questions that need to be answered both for our own needs as well as for the needs of our society.