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Self, Senility, and Alzheimer's Disease in Modern America: A History Hardcover – February 13, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0801882760 ISBN-10: 0801882761 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (February 13, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801882761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801882760
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,566,840 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Both science and history blend in a survey of aging and dementia, making for a broad discussion not just of changing American attitudes and culture, but changing health system responses.

(California Bookwatch)

This work is a major contribution to the history of dementia and Alzheimer disease.


Ballenger has done the field a great service in tracing the historical roots of this problem.

(Benjamin T. Mast PsycCRITIQUES)

An important book that deserves a wide readership.

(Gerald N. Grob Journal of American History)

Give[s] the reader a vibrant and provocative account of how to think about Alzheimer’s disease in anything but settled or conventional terms.

(Martha Holstein Healthcare and Aging Newsletter)

A substantial contribution to our knowledge... We are grateful to Ballenger for making a contribution to creating such wisdom and helping advance our culture's moral imagination.

(Danny George and Peter Whitehouss Medical Humanities Review)

A powerful, lucid account... Ballenger can be congratulated for a truly fascinating exploration of aging and senility. This book will appeal to physicians and historians, and the author (or the publishers) should consider marketing it to a broader public audience.

(Stephen Casper Medical History)

Ballenger aims not only to provide a cultural history of the disease but also to make ethical and epistemological claims about whether a human being with advanced Alzheimer's disease is still a person. These ambitions impose unusually high scholarly standards. Ballenger is up to the task.

(Thomas R. Cole American Historical Review)

A lucid and thoughtful history and a timely contribution... will appeal to readers from all professional backgrounds.

(Stephen Katz Ageing and Society)

This revealing and informative account is worth reading.

(Chris Ball History of Psychiatry)

No previous author has been able to weave together biomedical data, social science inquiries, policy issues, and popular attitudes while at the same time giving readers a sense of how victims of this dreaded disease (and those who love and care for them) think, feel, and behave. Ballenger's experiences as a caregiver and training as a historian of medicine provide the requisite insights to produce a book that will quickly become the standard work in the field. With this substantial, judicious piece of scholarship, Ballenger appropriately underscores the racial, class, and gender variations in the identification and care of the patient population.

(Andrew Achenbaum, University of Houston, author of Older Americans, Vital Communities)

Ballenger has written a persuasive account of a complicated subject, confronting the problem of dementia compassionately but unflinchingly... His writing is clear, graceful, and unburdened by jargon. This book deserves to be widely read by both historians and people dealing directly with dementia, including health care providers and family members.

(Lisa Boult Bulletin of the History of Medicine)

From the Inside Flap

Senility haunts the landscape of the self-made man, historian Jesse Ballenger asserts. Here, Ballenger traces the transformation of senility as a cultural category from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, when Alzheimer's disease became increasingly associated with the terrifying concept of losing one's self. During this period, changes in American society and culture complicated the notion of selfhood. No longer an ascribed status, selfhood must now be carefully and willfully constructed-and thus losing one's ability to sustain a coherent self-narrative may be considered one of life's most dreadful losses.

Drawing on scientific and popular discourses on aging and dementia, Ballenger explores the significance of dementia as a major health issue and the emergence of gerontology as a science to describe normal aging and distinguish it from disease. In addition, he examines how psychiatry approaches the treatment of senility and follows scientific attempts to understand the brain pathology of dementia.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on July 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Senility isn't just an issue of the last twenty years, but has long haunted the image of the self-made man. Historian Jesse Ballenger follows its impact from the 19th to the late 20th century, when Alzheimer's became associated with the loss of self. What makes his survey intriguing is his focus on changing American society and culture which fostered the idea of selfhood as a status, and later on as a willful construction. Both science and history blend in a survey of aging and dementia, making for a broad discussion not just of changing American attitudes and culture, but changing health system responses.

Diane C. Donovan

California Bookwatch
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By Spring Texan on August 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Ballenger's experience caring for people with Alzheimer's left him skeptical of the construction that these are humans whose personhood has left them and who remain a mere shell, a sort of not-yet-dead zombie. He traces the changing attitudes toward both old-age mental impairment and toward personhood over time and the benefits and harms of construing "Alzheimer's disease" in the way we do.

Having volunteered as a long-term care ombudsman, I share his skepticism. Although as with many old-age impairments, there is definitely tragedy and distress, so much personality remains. Someone who may not remember her age or name retains the ability to thoughtfully move her head out of the way of someone else watching a tv show and to behave graciously and enjoy music. These are impaired people, but they are not UN-people.

Prioritizing the conception of a disease has aided in funding research (and that's a good thing per se), but it has done nothing to promote funding for proper care for those with Alzheimer's (a more immediate need and -- since as with cancer research there is no guarantee of a solution -- at least as important of a need now and very possibly for the indefinite future). For instance, so often in nursing homes those with Alzheimer's who desperately want outside and could enjoy the outdoors are not allowed there since they might wander off. If we put any priority on their care instead of writing them off as un-people, we'd build enclosed yards where they could still enjoy nature and the outdoors. As well, we'd mandate better staffing so those who care for them can do so adequately.

This book is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and hits the ball out of the park dealing with how we think about these things (and about ourselves and our own "personhood"). Can't recommend it too highly.
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