Dementia doesn’t have to mean the end of friendship

"Social isolation isn’t a necessary consequence of dementia," says Janelle Taylor, whose works focuses on the "exemplary" friends who stick around.

Janelle Taylor started researching dementia about 10 years ago, after her father died and she and her siblings had to step up to care for their mother, who had been diagnosed with dementia some years before.

Hearing the same question, “Does she recognize you?” over and over sparked Taylor’s interest, she says.

Over time, Taylor realized that the answer didn’t matter, and from that her research into how society deals with people with dementia began.

Because the condition affects memory and language— qualities considered central to identity and relationships—it presents implicit questions. Who are you if you can’t remember your life before? What is your relationship with someone if you can’t remember what you did together?

“In a way, dementia shows us just how much more there is to being a person,” says Taylor, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. “Aside from the capacities that dementia takes away, we are who we are because of the network of people who support us and sustain us, and keep our identity in place.”

Taylor’s earlier research focused on how people with dementia were included—or not—in medical studies in the field of geriatrics. Since then, with support from the Fetzer Institute, she has delved into social aspects, such as the use of art as an activity.

Her latest approach is an examination of friendship between those with dementia and those without. Her piece appears in an anthology, Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives (Rutgers University Press, 2017). Another article based on this research is in the June issue of the journal Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry.

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