Dementia in Western culture

Jun 11, 2018

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Dementia in Western culture

Dementia in Western culture

Although it is very difficult to measure how culture impacts dementia, it is very likely that cultural factors influence how dementia is understood and treated. In Western cultures there is a relatively consistent view of dementia as a medical condition caused by several diseases. Unlike in many other cultures, it is considered a significant public health problem, and it may induce stigma based on changes in cognition, behaviour and decline in memory and thinking (cognitive) abilities. The Western biomedical model emphasises cognitive functioning in particular and considers cognitive impairment as a terrifying event, while dementia is not described with negative connotations in other social areas. More recently it has been recognised that both the person with dementia (PwD) and their carers will benefit from acknowledging the condition and getting support.

One big influencer that impacts on how we view dementia is the media. In recent years there has been an effort to de-stigmatise the condition. However, oftentimes stereotypical reporting does occur and this can have an important influence on our understanding of dementia. For example, often the press in the UK focuses on two types of stories related to dementia: (1) the potential of a miracle cure and (2) dementia as inevitable loss and decline while simultaneously describing strategies for avoiding this condition. This means that dementia is reframed as a disease that is influenced by behaviours and personal choices, and represents the failing of those afflicted to age successfully. Nonetheless, reporting on dementia has increased in the press, making it a more accessible and acceptable topic to explore.

In our blog series of movie reviews, Kinga Antal has explored the way dementia is portrayed in movies throughout the Western world. For instance the 2001 film Iris by Richard Eyre offers a nuanced message. Rather than depicting dementia only in terms of a diseased brain, dementia is portrayed as changing identities and ways of relating to others that transform a person rather than obliterating them. We learn about how dementia challenges the complex social challenges of an individual. In the movie Still Alice the contradictions that make up our current image of dementia are shown. One the one hand we see the tragedy of slowly losing yourself, and on the other we meet characters that continue to present a moral force, that show emotional responses and connections to their social and material worlds.The main character Alice wishes to love and be loved for the short time she has left being ‘still her’.

The way we understand and perceive dementia is affected by our cultural heritage, and affects the way that care and treatments are provided. There is now a growing population in the UK (and other Western countries) of people from different cultural backgrounds. For example, there is a projected eight-fold increase in the number of people from black and minority communities developing dementia between now and 2051, though, with only a two-fold increase generally in people with dementia from all backgrounds in the UK. This has a important implications for policy making and the way services are delivered.

To find out more about the perceptions of dementia in different ethnic communities have a look here.

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