Alzheimer’s disease, an explanation through the Media by Carol Robson

Alzheimer’s disease, an explanation through the Media


Carol Robson

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and its relationship with the media, how it is talked about from the aspect of news reporting, like BBC News, the internet and the film Iris.  In respect of this how the BBC News and the internet report, or how especially in the case of the internet; life-stories are composed and put on the web for others to read.  Therefore, I believe we are looking at two separate mediums, except it might be pertinent to look at both together.  Finally, I’ve written a review of the true story film Iris; which is about Iris Murdoch the writer who suffered with Alzheimer’s during the last four years of her life.  The film is based on the memoirs of her husband and carer John Bayley.

There are lots of explanations of what AD is and the causal effect it has on life for the sufferer and their carer which can be accessed through the internet.

Dementia is an umbrella term of which Alzheimer’s disease is one of the nine described by the Alzheimer’s Society.

1. Alzheimer’s:

This is the most common cause of dementia. During the course of the disease, the chemistry and structure of the brain changes, leading to the death of brain cells.

2. Vascular Dementia:

If the oxygen supply to the brain fails, brain cells may die. The symptoms of vascular dementia can occur either suddenly, following a stroke, or over time, through a series of small strokes.

3. Dementia with Lewy bodies:

This form of dementia gets its name from tiny spherical structures that develop inside nerve cells. Their presence in the brain leads to the degeneration of brain tissue.

4. Fronto-temperal dementia:

In fronto-temporal dementia, damage is usually focused in the front part of the brain. Personality and behaviour are initially more affected than memory.

5. Korsakoff’s syndrome:

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a brain disorder that is usually associated with heavy drinking over a long period. Although it is not strictly speaking a dementia, people with the condition experience loss of short term memory.

6. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease:

Prions are infectious agents that attack the central nervous system and then invade the brain, causing dementia. The best-known prion disease is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD.

7. HIV-related cognitive impairment:

People with HIV and AIDS sometimes develop cognitive impairment, particularly in the later stages of their illness.

8. Mild cognitive impairment:

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a relatively recent term, used to describe people who have some problems with their memory but do not actually have dementia.

9. Rarer causes of dementia:

There are many other rarer causes of dementia, including progressive supranuclear palsy and Binswanger’s disease. People with multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease can also be at an increased risk of developing dementia.

(Full descriptions, fact sheets and information can be found at the Alzheimer’s Society website:

The above is just one example of how someone who is desperate to find sources of information and support can be helped, actually knowing a source like the above can save time lost in searching and dissemination of appropriate suitable information

Although the BBC do appear to make a point of reporting when a celebrity reveals they have AD, similarly to the late 1990s with the story around the writer Iris Murdoch.  However, the BBC have excellent articles on their BBC News Health page; their more recent article talks about; ‘scientists have identified 5 more genes that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease’

There does however appear to be lots of information on the internet about AD.  If you Google Alzheimer’s disease you receive nearly 16 million results which obviously contain articles which are repetitious, time consuming and sometimes hard to disseminate.  However, usually the first page results are all that anyone needs.  You get explanations, associations through to societies and as always a Wikipedia, these results will be both UK and USA based.  Here in the UK we have the previously mentioned Alzheimer’s Society;

There also many sites where people and families tell their stories.  I have found many of these are American based and I guess people reading them can relate to the stories in many different ways.  I also feel that in a way the people that write about their experiences, especially of caring for a loved one with dementia find it very cathartic.

The film ‘Iris’ is basically a love story that is related through the memories of an AD sufferer.  Iris Murdoch was a respected writer who had AD in the last four years of her life.  She was someone who challenged the boundaries as a writer and this is reflected in the film, that she was someone who had a talent for life and this shows through during her illness, particularly in the use of humour that can reflect the sadness and darkness of AD.

The opening shot of the film shows her swimming in the river as the older Iris suffering AD and then it changes to her swimming there as a young woman, the reflection of her memories.  It also starts with her writing as the older Iris and flashes back in time with a memory.  This is how the format of the film unfolds.  In this, they are doing what often happens with AD sufferers.  Their memories of the past are so vivid and at times they believe that they are in that time period.  This is something that the film does very well and the makers do have poetic licence to do this.  Most of Iris’s memories involve her relationship with her husband John Bayley, therefore, it might be seen that her memories of her life with her husband are better than her relationship with him as an AD sufferer and him as her carer.

The language is also relative to how people cope, like his simple use of ‘Mae West’ for a vest, it was his way of coping in his own sense of humour.  Iris is shown that in the early days of her AD she immersed herself in her writing as if there is an acknowledgement of her having a problem and trying to keep this slow decline at bay.  The problem is that for many AD sufferers, it is the realisation of what is happening to them and because it is dementia at its worst.

The film shows the disorder that the household can fall into, however, it also shows the disorder of the relationship between sufferer and carer and as in most cases this a husband/wife relationship.  Seeing this in the film can educate the many people who know nothing of the chaos that comes out of the relationship between sufferer and carer.  It also puts substance for the many that have gone through or who are going through this chaos, however, it was also her husband’s eccentricity, in that he was so relaxed over the mess and chaos.  This was noted by a woman whose husband suffered from AD and this was diagnosed quite early in his condition.  She went to see the film on her own and wrote in a review:

“I didn’t recognise a lot in the film, but that’s partly because they didn’t

pick up that anything was wrong with Iris until further down the line and

they were a couple who lived in happy eccentricity anyway.  But I am

like John Bayley in that I’m fairly relaxed about the mess.  It must be

much harder to cope if you try to keep up appearances.(BBC News. 2002)

The part in the film reflecting Iris’s thoughts as she had the brain scan, then showing the image of the head and brain where this disease afflicts was a clever use for explanation.  Also the way for Iris to keep talking, her words still keep coming, or if she does not manage to do this, she fears then the descent into darkness.  When she had the word test you see the fear of not knowing showing in her face, however, refusing to be frightened.  The film captures the decline into AD even though at its worst her power of imagination was still there.  This relates that Ad sufferers might be written off by some, however the brain is still a powerful entity and can still organise a brief glimpse of the old personality.  Iris knew she had to reach out to her husband, however, not really knowing why.  When the relationship became strained her husband said what a lot of carers husband/wife/partners would relate to; “I cannot be alone when I am with you and I cannot live with you”.

I think the film does romanticise the illness with its reflections of the younger Iris, however, it does show in great depth the mental anguish and heartbreak that AD brings.

In conclusion, after looking at my sources in relation to AD, this is a disease that brings a sense of foreboding for many as soon as it is mentioned.  This is a belief that the personality of the sufferer starts to disappear, this may be true to a certain extent. However, it may be fair to say that the true inner personality of the sufferer does not disappear, that sometimes it is in a different time and setting.  Socialisation goes a long way in how the AD sufferer and their carer are seen and treated.  Through the modern age of instant news and the internet, support and information is at hand for a disease which has strived to be more understood.  However, this has only been made possible by the people who care, the husbands, wives, partners and families of people who have AD and those people who are no longer with us.  Alzheimer’s has been around for hundreds of years; however, it is in recent years that it has become the focus from a modern age viewpoint.

‘My Thoughts as I Lose It’ poem by Carol Robson.

Now published in Verita Magazine under the heading Losing my mind:


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