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My Research

Senility before Alzheimer: old-age mental health in British medicine, politics and culture, 1845-1914.

My project is not a history of 'senile dementia', although the history of the development of that term is part of it. I want to know how mental change in old age was perceived before the category of Alzheimer's disease come to dominate the conception of old age mental health in the second half of the twentieth century. My project is an investigation of the way 'mental' changes in old age were represented within various discourses in nineteenth century Britain.

The 'mental aspects of ageing' which interest me are not just the symptoms of memory loss and confusion which have become synonymous with dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the twenty-first century, but also less frequently pathologised changes such as irritability, increased sexual appetite, or the acquisition of wisdom: any change in cognitive ability or behavioural presentation which was linked, by commentators from a variety of discourses, to the ageing process.

I have three main research questions:

1. What cognitive and behavioural changes were associated with old age?

2. How were they explained?

3. How were they responded to?

I will look for the answers to these questions in three overlapping areas of the Victorian world:

1. Medicine (both in published texts on psychiatry and ageing, and in the experiential world of the Victorian asylum, home to increasing numbers of elderly people over the course of the nineteenth century)

2. Politics (in discussions within and without parliament on the welfare of the aged poor)

3. Culture (the most elusive area: currently centred on a study of representations in the popular press of the periodicals).

This project is in the early stages

At the moment I am primarily interested in 'discourses'. I define a 'discourse' as 'that which is said or which are possible to say' on a certain topic, which, although discourses are dynamic and overlapping, tends to cohere around similar images and concepts, and which originates in underlying mental structures. Therefore, I am interested in how 'the elderly' were defined and represented in various discourses (on old age, on madness, on welfare, on the life cycle, etc.), what part the 'mental' played in these representations, and at the relationship between these discourses and institutional pressures (such as the overcrowding of the asylum) and policy changes (such as as passing of the Pensions Act in 1908).


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