Today, nearly six million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By the year 2050, that number is expected to double. Beyond that statistic are several million more people who have been assigned another kind of dementia diagnosis. The reality is that nearly every American, at some point in his or her life, is going to have a friend or family member afflicted by a chronic neurodegenerative disease. As a society, we have struggled to understand and cope with these diagnoses. Symptoms often start small, building to a critical level that alienates people from their loved ones through a mental fugue from which they cannot escape.
Most Americans gain their initial understanding of these illnesses through popular culture. As early as 1949, the character Willy Loman displays signs of dementia in the play “Death of a Salesman.” By the 1980s, several films used dementia symptoms as key plot points, as writers and directors explored the family dynamics and challenges that occur as dementia progresses. Since the year 2000, we’ve seen an explosion of documentaries, movies, books and other works that have chronicled the onset of dementia symptoms — both from a first-person account and through the eyes of loved ones. Today, one of Broadway’s most popular shows is “The Waverly Gallery,” a wrenching production that follows Gladys Green as her mind slowly fades while her body continues to struggle on.
In that trying moment, when a family is first faced with a dementia diagnosis, these portrayals are often the first thing that comes to mind. Loved ones conjure up the worst moments of the illness as portrayed in the cultural zeitgeist, leading them to believe that only desperation and sadness lie on the path ahead — except, that’s not really the case.
Generally, Alzheimer’s is first recognized because an individual is experiencing some kind of cognitive impairment that impacts his or her daily life. This means that the disease has already been present for a period of time before being discovered by medical professionals. Following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the average person can expect to live an additional three to 10 years. Herein lies the disconnect between popular culture and reality.
Families and friends often have a hard time understanding a diagnosis of dementia because the person may just seem forgetful as he or she ages. The portrayals of the disease in media usually play up the most uncomfortable and sad moments that come with the end of the disease, but a person might be able to live a relatively normal and happy life for several years before true debilitation occurs. This is why it’s so important that dementia be realistically portrayed to audiences.
At Varsity, we often don’t interact directly with individuals who have a dementia diagnosis, but the majority of the team has spent time in communities and with family members who have dementia. As an organization, we recognize the important of portraying the life cycle of a dementia diagnosis in a realistic and relatable way, especially through the marketing and advertising work that we do.
Sometimes, the “fresh perspective” isn’t the one that causes the greatest stir. From our experience, today’s freshest perspective about memory support and dementia is a realistic one that focuses on the life yet to be lived, not the eventual challenges down the road.