Tragedy of dementia or feeblemindedness of old age?

Old age and dementia are defined differently in Finland and Russia.

Text Nina Venhe Photo Ritva Melentjeva

What do you think of when you hear the words old age and dementia? A degenerative memory disorder, a nursing home, the loss of self, or the beginning of the end?

“In Western countries, old age is largely seen as a biomedical condition – as if diseases and ailments are an inevitable part of being old,” Early Stage Researcher Anna Kinnunen says.

But how about a different perspective? In Russia, for example, dementia as a biomedical concept isn’t familiar to the general public: according to a recent study, only 16 per cent of Russians are aware of what dementia is, or what its symptoms are. Instead of dementia, the term “feeblemindedness of old age” is frequently used there.  

“How this ‘state of being unaware’ shapes general attitudes towards old age and old-age ailments is an interesting question,” Docent Maija Könönen says.  

Both Könönen and Kinnunen work on the DemOldCult project, which studies the cultural meanings of dementia and old age in Finland and Russia.

 

How the process of physical and cognitive decline associated with old age is represented and valued in contemporary Russian literature is the focus of Könönen’s research in the project.  

“Dementia as a concept constitutes part of our diagnosis-oriented, pathologising culture that leaves very little room for cultural interpretations and perceptions of old-age frailty.”

According to Könönen, the way in which the tragedy of dementia is represented and interpreted has more to do with the surrounding culture, time and place than with biology.  

“In the end, it’s about how narrow the concept of being human is, and what the cultural conceptions of health and disease in the context of dementia are.”  

Könönen studies whether there are differences in the cultural conceptions of memory disorders and old age between Western and Russian cultures – and if there are, how they are depicted in literature.

“At its best, literature offers alternative perspectives on memory disorders, including those of people suffering from them. This way, literature can supplement the one-sided, medical perspective.”

 

The historical perspective of diagnosing dementia, on the other hand, is at the core of Anna Kinnunen’s research. 

“I have studied case records written in a psychiatric hospital in the 1930s. By analysing their content, I hope to uncover the meanings given to old age and ageing back then.”

When patients were admitted to the hospital, the medical staff interviewed their escorts.

“I’m interested in these stories told by ordinary people: the perspective of a spouse or an adult child, for example. The texts I have analysed often reveal why a patient’s family thinks he or she has developed an illness.”

Typical of psychiatry in that era, symptoms of dementia were explained by old age and the patient’s ageing body. The stories told by family members, however, had a different angle.

“The patient’s unexceptional behaviour could be explained by the time of year, or by a concrete, traumatic event. The patient’s memory decline was attributed to great sorrow and worries, for example.”  

 

Kinnunen considers the Western way of looking at old age as a biomedical concept an artificial one.  

“The observations of my study challenge this way of thinking. When dementia wasn’t recognised, the symptoms had to be explained in some other way.”

Kinnunen says that she of course understands that it is often a relief to have a name and a diagnosis for the disease.  

“But does a diagnosis of dementia increase people’s fears of old age, memory decline and physical deterioration? If we didn’t know about dementia, would our attitudes towards old age be kinder?”

DemOldCult project website: https://demoldcult.wordpress.com

UEF Bulletin 2019