At age 60, Gerda Saunders was an author, college professor, wife and doting grandmother; just days before her 60th birthday she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She began keeping a journal in which she explores the way her brain is changing and how it affects her sense of self and those around her, especially her husband Peter.
This journal, which she called “Field Notes on My Dementia,” turned into an essay that was originally published in Slate Magazine and eventually expanded into her new memoir “Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia.”
A Personal Reflection on Dementia
In “Memory’s Last Breath” Gerda reflects on her childhood in South Africa, the marvels of neuropsychology and how her demented self, which she dubs Dona Quixote, intersects with these concepts in her everyday life. Even ordinary tasks are made difficult by dementia, “In the same way, when I take out the garbage in the midst of cooking dinner, I could a minute later be watering my new plants outside while the broccoli boils dry. I have changed from an efficient and goal-directed person to someone who drifts from task to task, sometimes striking a blank between deciding to fetch the milk for my coffee and reaching the fridge one step away.”
Vascular dementia has similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease but there are some subtle differences:
- Impairments are caused by chronic reduced blood flow in the brain
- Memory difficulties in vascular dementia may be easier to manage by using cues and reminders
- Distraction and disorganization are more common in vascular dementia
- Impaired planning and judgement
- Difficulty remembering words “tip of my tongue” phenomenon
Exploring Dementia Through Writing
When she retired her colleagues at the University of Utah gave her a leather bound journal in which she began to explore the question of “Who can I be when this intellect that I built a lot of my identity on is taken away? What can be left?” As her dementia progressed, writing became more difficult due to deterioration of her working memory. Each chapter required multiple pages of handwritten notes so Saunders could continue a thought when switching between computer screens. Yet despite communication and organizational difficulties her ability to continue writing surprised her. After a bit of research she discovered that many people who have spent a lifetime mastering intellectual, specialized skills may retain that expertise even after having lost the ability to perform many everyday tasks.
What began as a personal journal became an article in the Winter 2013 edition of The Georgia Review that was then republished in Slate. The memoir, which was released earlier this month, has led to book reviews, an interview on NPR Weekend Edition, and an upcoming interview with Alzheimer’s activist Maria Shriver to be broadcast on The Today Show.
The Memoir for Everyone
“Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on Dementia” is a testament to perseverance, a weaving together of past and present experiences and an exploration of a changing identity. “Memory’s Last Breath” shows that there can be life, joy and accomplishments after a dementia diagnosis.
In the author’s note of her book Gerda Saunders says “My Book is for you: whether your or someone you love has dementia, or you’re a medical professional, or a person searching for your own self after a huge life change, or someone just plain curious, who — like me — feels that the more you know, the better you’re able to love.”
Tell us why you would like to read Memory’s Last Breath and we will enter your name in a drawing to win a free copy of the book. We will choose five lucky winners on July 21, 2017. One entry per person, please.