Summary and book reviews of Keeper by Andrea Gillies

Keeper

One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's

By Andrea Gillies

Keeper
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2010,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2011,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

Five years ago, Andrea Gillies - writer, wife, and mother of three - seeing that her husband's parents were struggling to cope, invited them to move in. She and her newly extended family relocated to a big Victorian house on a remote, windswept peninsula in the far north of Scotland, leaving behind their friends and all that was familiar; hoping to find a new life, and new inspiration for work.

Her mother-in-law Nancy was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's Disease, and Keeper charts her journey into dementia, its impact on her personality and her family, and the author's researches into what dementia is. As the grip of her disease tightens, Nancy's grasp on everything we think of as ordinary unravels before our eyes. Diary entries and accounts of conversations with Nancy track the slow unravelling. The journey is marked by frustration, isolation, exhaustion, and unexpected black comedy. For the author, who knew little about dementia at the outset, the learning curve was steeper than she could have imagined. The most pernicious quality of Alzheimer's, Gillies suggests, is that the loss of memory is, in effect, the loss of one's self, and Alzheimer's, because it robs us of our intrinsic self-knowledge, our ability to connect with others, and our capacity for self-expression, is perhaps the most terrible and most dehumanizing illness. Moreover, as Gillies reminds us, the effects of Alzheimer's are far-reaching, impacting the lives of caregivers and their loved ones in every way imaginable.

Keeper is a fiercely honest "glimpse into the dementia abyss" - an endlessly engrossing meditation on memory and the mind, on family, and on a society that is largely indifferent to the far-reaching ravages of this baffling disease.

Keeper won the U.K.'s Orwell Prize for political writing and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for medical writing.

Introduction

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and
pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives.
Life without memory is no life at all. Our memory is our
coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.
Without it, we are nothing.

-Luis Buñuel

It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what
ceases to be constantly before us. A year impairs, a luster
obliterates. There is little distinct left without an effort of
memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a
moment - but who can be sure that the Imagination is not
the torch- bearer?

-Lord Byron

The process of writing this book, the physical act of putting it together from diaries, scribbled notes, books about the mind, and concentrated bouts of introspection, has proven an illuminating exercise for me, demonstrating just what it is that dementia takes away. (Answer: everything; every last thing we reassure ourselves that nothing could take away from us.) The way ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Dear Reader:
 
Here are some questions that seem obvious to me, as the author of the book. They're the questions I ask myself, now that I read it again, given the benefit of some distance from the events described.
 
My best to you,
Andrea Gillies 

  1. Did Andrea and Chris have any real choice when they offered to take Nancy and Morris into their home? Where would another choice have led the family as a whole?

  2. On what basis does the author rationalize the choice she's made to care for Nancy herself? Is her reasoning sound, or based on idealism and ignorance?

  3. To what extent does the romantic setting - the landscape surrounding the house, and the beauty of...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

There are memoirs that inspire and there are memoirs that are inspired. Gillies's exceptional, award-winning account of caring for her ailing mother-in-law fits squarely into both categories... Punctuating her candid personal experiences and lots of medical information on Alzheimer's are glorious morsels of truth gleaned from the wisdom of the ages... This is not a feel-good book. At times, everyone's suffering is so raw it's painful. But this is also a beautiful, perceptive and inspiring book. Gillies may not be a saint but this experience makes her something of hero in my estimation.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Jo Brand, Chair of the judges of the Wellcome Prize, 2009
Andrea Gillies's account of living with Alzheimer's is the perfect fusion of narrative with enough memorable science not to choke you. It's a fantastic book - down to earth and darkly comic in places. The judges found it compelling.

Author Blurb Sir Richard Eyre, Patron of the Alzheimer's Research Trust
Thoughtful, informative and true... a very good, very necessary book.

The Guardian (UK) - Amelia Gentleman

This is not another guide to be added to the depressing pile by the bedside for those who are confronting the decline of a relative. It is as much an exploration of memory, its loss and the subsequent erosion of personality, as a chronicle of the destructive chaos that the onset of Alzheimer's unleashes on the extended family... Somehow, despite the territory, Gillies manages to steer the book away from misery lit and beneath the profoundly bleak narrative runs a stream of grim humour. Most powerful, however, is Nancy's own voice, carefully recorded by Gillies in nightly diary entries, a voice that is at times cantankerous, bewildered and defiant. Reading these monologues, we get very close to understanding what it feels like to experience this illness... What makes this book so unexpected is the honesty with which Gillies records the catastrophic consequences of this well-intentioned act." -

The Sunday Times (UK) - Pick of the Week

Gillies' account mixes popular science with a gruellingly vivid anecdotal picture of a personality altering...this is a compulsively readable and culturally clued-up book, drawing lightly on Proust, Marcus Aurelius and Ravel.. a valuable exploration of a landscape we urgently need to understand better now that so many of us are going to go there.

Publishers Weekly

An invaluable resource on the stages of Alzheimer's, history, drugs, brain function, care-giving options, even literary works

The Los Angeles Times - Carolyn Kellogg

In the '60s, it was " cancer"; in the '80s, "AIDS." Today "Alzheimer's" is the healthcare word that can freeze a pleasant dinner conversation. Maybe it's spoken in a whisper; maybe it's left unsaid. Not so by Andrea Gillies, who raises her voice in "Keeper" to describe in moving but unsentimental terms the day-to-day experience of caring for Nancy, her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law.

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The Frontiers of Alzheimer's Research

The World Alzheimer Report estimates that there are upwards of 35 million people living with dementia worldwide, two-thirds of whom are women, with Alzheimer's accounting for about two-thirds of cases. By 2050 it is expected that 115 million people will be living with dementia.

In the United States there are approximately 5.3 million people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. One person is diagnosed every 70 seconds. By the year 2050 it is expected that this rate will accelerate to one person every 33 seconds. In the UK Alzheimer's effects about 500,000 people. Evidence of Alzheimer's can be observed up to twenty years before serious mental breakdown occurs. Once diagnosed a person's average life expectancy is eight ...

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