Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia

In her memoir, Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia, Gerda Saunders gives the reader an intimate, revealing account of living with dementia, as well as insightful meditations on selfhood and a window into her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. Starting with her diagnosis of microvascular disease--the second leading cause of dementia--five days before her 61st birthday, Saunders copes by taking an anthropological view of her own illness. Her memoir features excerpts from a journal she kept called "Dementia Field Notes," with entries that range from the mundane ("I could not combine the up and sideways movements of our bathroom tap to make cold water come out. Instead fetched cold water from the kitchen in the plastic jug") to the existential ("When I put away the salad bowl after lunch, it appeared oval rather than round.... It made me feel disconnected from myself--as if it were not me looking at the bowl").

Saunders's memoir is similarly wide-ranging, discussing the state of neuroscience as it relates to dementia, the awful inequalities hidden by the shadow of a happy youth, the unreliability of memory in even healthy brains and her thoughts on end-of-life care (she is frank about her eventual plans for an assisted suicide). Saunders approaches some of the most difficult questions a human being can face with clarity and wisdom--her mind may be failing, but one could never tell from reading her memoir. Memory's Last Breath somehow transmutes "bottomless dread" into remarkable insight. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

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