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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

January 2012

By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month

 


 

 

TANGLES: A STORY ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S, MY
MOTHER AND ME


By Sarah Leavitt

Tangles: A story about Alzheimer's, my mother and me.There are sometimes serendipitous encounters that open a whole new world to you. Such an encounter happened to me a few weeks ago when a cousin who I had met perhaps three times in my life came to visit in London. While getting to know him and his family he mentioned that his daughter Sarah Leavitt would be in England soon talking about a graphic book she had written. I didn’t pay too much attention until I noticed an eye catching spread in the Observer Sunday magazine, featuring Sarah and her graphic memoir. There were four pages of the most delightful line drawings and accompanying text in comic strip format that were excerpted from her book , a very personal account of her mother’s decline from a loving, outspoken, passionate and quick witted 52 year old to a life where she would require full time care and death at age 60.

The world that was opened to me is the world of graphic literature. I had dismissed the few references to this genre as most likely books about Superman and Monsters, similar to the comic books I had read as a child. I was totally taken up in Sarah’s book. Her line drawings in a few simple strokes and text let you get to know her mother, her father, her sister and herself as they go through the journey of Alzheimer's that many of us will recognise.

Sarah’s mother, Midge, was just 52 when she first began displaying signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Sarah recalls those early moments when the first signs of her mother’s illness began to show, barely palpable at first – an iron left on, neglecting to shut a car door behind her -- before escalating to no longer remembering the route to her favourite spot by the river and forgetting how to eat an apple, swallowing the fruit, core, stem and all..

At first the family ran through all possible explanations – job loss, depression, menopause – before conceding that something more serious was amiss. Two years later, when Midge was 54, Alzheimer’s was officially diagnosed. By then her condition had deteriorated further. Their Harvard-educated mother could no longer remember the word for banana or how to open the front door. .

Sarah felt compelled to record what was happening to her family. Over the next six years, she kept a series of journals and sketchbooks, jotting down thoughts on scraps of paper, as she watched the disease tighten its grip on her mother.

After her mother passed away, Sarah wanted not only to remember her as she was during her agonising decline, but to pay tribute to the once vibrant, protective parent she was before her illness.

“I realised that instead of writing prose about my mother I wanted to do a graphic memoir, “says writer and /cartoonist Sarah. “ And I spent the next four years writing and drawing the book.”

Graphic narratives can be used to tell almost any kind of story. Both the classic Adventures of Tintin, by Herge and the extraordinary Maus, Art Spiegelman’s story of his Jewish family’s sufferings during the Holocaust, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize, are at home in the comic form. But as an important cultural art form it has been neglected in Britain until recently.

Judging from the number of conferences and book fairs Sarah had been invited to attend, the comic’s scene in the UK is becoming vibrant and varied. These were held in London, Leeds and Newcastle. “One of the best parts,” she said, was exploring the connections between comics and medicine at conferences in Newcastle. Graphic narratives are being used in medical education, patient care and scholarship. What can be complicated and difficult to understand in straight narrative becomes much more accessible in the comic narrative format  - a new therapeutic tool in the Doctor’s bag.

I asked Sarah what graphic books on coping with real life illness would be of interest to the laterlife reader. I have listed these below, including Sarah’s book. These are personal stories which I think you’ll find not only instructive journeys, but often humorous as well as moving you to tears.

Tangles: a Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me by Sarah Leavitt

Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

Cancer Made me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engleberg

Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies

Billy, Me and You by Nicola Streeten

 


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