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The Author Speaks

Interview With Margaret Morganroth Gullette on the New Ageism

'Agewise' calls for reexamination of negative views

Q. You write movingly about your relationship with your mother, as well as her cognitive problems. How has your personal experience influenced your view of dementia and cognitive impairment?

A. My mother was an adorable person. When she moved near us at the age of 91, the director of her retirement community used to seat her next to 70-year-olds considering moving in, she was so eloquent and enthusiastic. As she lost memories, I felt I needed to protect her from the condescension and ignorance of her aides about her life. So I wrote a short biography of her that I gave every aide: It told about her 25 years of teaching, her 20 years in retirement running a nonprofit business to raise money for the Brandeis library, her Scrabble prowess, her interests in unionization and feminism, her marriages and the affair she had in her late 70s. The aides could go in prepared for good conversation. People want to be thought interesting as long as they live. It's as natural a human need as wanting to stay healthy.

Q. You condemn our growing obsession with Alzheimer's disease. But isn't identifying a disease a useful step toward treatment?

A. "Treatment" is a weasel word. So far there is no proven treatment for Alzheimer's. Today's pills, which my mother took at enormous expense, may turn out to be placebos. So what we need to treat in the meantime, which may be very long, are the feelings of terror that have arisen around the words "Alzheimer's" and "dementia." In relating to people with cognitive impairment we should be looking for what remains of mental functioning and selfhood, not harping on what is lost. Even when my mother could no longer access all her memories, she had immense warmth. Her aides all said they learned from her.

Q. AARP has arguably played a role in fostering positive images of older Americans. What more could the organization be doing?

A. Positive images are useful up to a point. I think Americans know that over 60, or 80, under certain circumstances, people can make great contributions, enjoy life, have purpose and energy, good health. The next questions are political: What are those circumstances, and how can we expand the percentages that have any access to them? I would like AARP to admit the problems are becoming more dire.

Q. What are the principal messages you'd like readers to take away from Agewise?

A. Be aware, be afraid, be active. Stay human and connected to the vulnerable. Join together to resist ageism in all its forms.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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