Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass: Narrative Medicine and Healing

DanaWYEREVAN-On Thursday, February 21, 2013, the American University of Armenia (AUA) hosted a seminar examining the impact of narrative medicine as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Dana Walrath presented the lecture “Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass: Narrative Medicine and Healing” as a part of AUA’s College of Health Sciences’ Public Health Seminar Series.

Associate Dean of the College of Health Sciences (CHS) Varduhi Petrosyan opened the seminar by welcoming Dr. Walrath, a Fulbright Scholar at CHS, and highlighting the importance of initiating a dialogue about Alzheimer’s disease, especially given the growing aging population in Armenia.

Providing specific background on the biomedical approach to dementia and drawing on examples from her Aliceheimer’s stories, Dr. Walrath focused on the power of graphic storytelling to heal and support individual caregivers, to support those with dementia, and to rewrite the story of how we age globally. Dr. Walrath has also addressed the culture of silence surrounding the disease: “Because story allows for metaphor, complex co-existing realities, and connection between those who are sick and those who care for them, it is an ideal healing modality. Graphic narratives have an added advantage of communicating at both visual and verbal levels. ”

In the Q&A session following the presentation, a large audience of public health and medical professionals, including students, faculty, researchers, physicians, and NGO representatives as well as artists and writers raised complex issues such as the ethics of sharing others’ experiences in talking about Alzheimer’s, and how to overcome the cultural stigma surrounding the disease. Dr. Walrath concluded:
“To rewrite the story of Alzheimer’s, we need to bring it out into the open. This both restores the sick individuals’ humanity and directly supports families who struggle in isolation with the devastation of the daily work and the expense of caring for someone with this sickness.”

Dana Walrath, PhD, MFA is an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Vermont and a Women’s and Gender Studies affiliated faculty member. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. She has written on a wide range of topics related to gender in paleoanthropology, the social production of sickness and health, sex differences, genetics, and evolutionary medicine. Her work has appeared in edited volumes and in journals such as Current Anthropology, American Anthropologist, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Anthropology Now. As well, she is a co-author of a leading anthropology textbook series that is published in a variety of languages. Dr. Walrath also has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has shown her art work in galleries throughout the USA. Her recent work on the Alzheimer’s disease, Aliceheimer’s, combines anthropology with memoir and visual art. Her verse novel, Grey White Down, set during the Armenian genocide is forthcoming from Random House/ Delacorte in 2014.