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Lectures – Ballenger/Alzheimer

At the moment, I am trying to write a proposal for the FNR, the Luxembourgish Research Fund, in order to launch a research project on the construction of “age” as a social and political problem. The central methodological book is from Joseph Gusfield The culture of public problems : drinking-driving and the symbolic order but as you can see from the title, it is not very related to the specific topic I want to study, i.e.

  • how “old age” became a topic for scientific discourses in Europe from the 1950s on,
  • how old people are treated in asylums since the 19th century,
  • how “old age” is today a “challenge” for different public administrations and NGOs in Luxembourg.

One of the most interesting books I recently read on the topic is by Jesse Ballenger and is entitled Self, Senility, and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America. Even if he focuses on America, several points were particular interesting.

First, he distinguishes three periods. From the late 19th-century on, age-related diseases were considered as something irreversible: prophylactic advise wa of no use. In the 1930s, a more psychosocial model became predominant. Psychiatrist David Rothschild was particularly important in this change by looking beyond the deterioration of brain tissue and proposing a psychodynamic explanation. Finally, in the late 1960s, brain pathology became again the focus of gerontologists. This periodisation – biology, social, biology – is characteristic for other topics in the history of medicine and psychiatry.

Second, he brilliantly analyses a move he calls “gerontological persuasion” (p. 56), which took off in the late 1930s and which successfully postulates the possibility of successful aging. This redefinition was however only possible if the boundaries between normal aging and disease were clearly identified. Gerontology such as defined by sociologists, physicians, psychologists… became the science to negotiate these shifting junctures. The emergence of Alzheimer as the “disease of the century” in the late 1970s played an important role in this constant rearrangement of what had to be considered pathological and what was defined as natural aging.

Third, the American historian who has worked for ten years as a nursing assistant in a couple of hospitals before starting his PhD, succeeds in avoiding the debates between “positivists” and “constructionists”: he does not discuss if dementia/Alzheimer had or has an increasing prevalence but is more interested in the different meanings people attached to it. Thereby he shows how in the 19th century senility was mainly a problem for the “white man” and how in the second half of the 20th century gender was no longer central but class still played a role as Alzheimer was mainly “illustrated” through people from the middle class.

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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