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Cult Med Psychiatry. 1999 Dec;23(4):453-75.

Constructing Alzheimer's: narratives of lost identities, confusion and loneliness in old age.

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Department of Psychiatry, UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento, CA, USA.


This paper is a qualitative study based on retrospective, unstructured, qualitative interviews with Mrs. Jones and other African-American, Chinese-American, Irish-American and Latino family caregivers in the Boston area. A narrative approach is used to show how family caregivers draw on their cultural and personal resources to create stories about the nature and meaning of illness and to ask how ethnic identity may influence the kinds of stories family caregivers tell. Three different story types are identified and described, each with a distinctive configuration of illness meanings and overarching theme, or storyline: a subset of African-American, Irish-American, and Chinese-American caregivers told us stories about Alzheimer's as a disease that erodes the core identity of a loved one and deteriorates their minds; a subset of Chinese caregivers narrated stories that emphasized how families managed confusion and disabilities, changes ultimately construed as an expected part of growing old; a subset of Puerto Rican and Dominican families, while using the biomedical label of Alzheimer's disease or dementia, placed the elder's illness in stories about tragic losses, loneliness, and family responsibility. To construct their stories, caregivers drew upon both biomedical explanations and other cultural meanings of behavioral and cognitive changes in old age. Their stories challenge us to move beyond the sharp contrast between ethnic minority and non-ethnic minority views of dementia-related changes, to local clinics and hospitals as sites where biomedical knowledge is interpreted, communicated, discussed, and adapted to the perspectives and lived realities of families.

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