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The Origins of SAACY

Welcome to the first blog post about The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth, 1880 to the present day (SAACY), a research programme funded by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship.

SAACY aims to offer a conceptual framework with which to overcome cultural pessimism about ageing and influence policy change. Finding that cultural pessimism about ageing endangers all facets of intergenerational solidarity, shapes perceptions of the worth and value of human beings and directs decisions about care, research and funding priorities, this research programme aims to inform practices and policy development in these areas.

SAACY emerged from my interest in discipline-crossing research. I have a long-term background in pharmaceutical sciences and specialised in neuropharmacology. Over time, I became increasingly interested in questions that disease models and biochemical research methodologies could not answer. Such questions ranged from the experience of dementia, including questions of care, to cultural perspectives on Alzheimer’s disease. Since moving into the field of the Health Humanities, I have written about these issues in two monographs and a range of research papers and book chapters.

My first book, The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing (2017), was deeply invested in understanding how spouses or adult children of people living with dementia think about the condition as compared to how people with dementia themselves describe it. What I found was a stark difference in focus. Carers trace the loss of a parent or spouse, stress the challenges of care, or compose a call to arms to change the politics of care. People with dementia have one single mission: asserting their right to be heard. All the texts I analysed, from the English, French, Italian, German and Spanish language context, had emerged since the 1980s. They appeared during a period referred to as biomedicalisation or really Alzheimerisation, after the National Institute on Aging, a US federal institution with international reach, had declared war on Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-1970s. The campaigns directed by the NIA depicted dementia as a killer and generally thrived on a language of loss. With my long-term background in the medical sciences, I was attuned to this language of loss in the scientific dementia discourse.

One could argue that the carer’s perspective on their lost spouse or parent could be explained with such scientifically sanctioned concepts of loss and reduction. But the objectification as a living dead of the person with dementia could also be explained by overwhelming burdens of care placed on the caregiver. In addition, concepts of loss have long been connected to the experience of ageing as such. As I was thinking through such questions, I wanted to understand better the historical grounding of objectifying presentations of people with dementia and explore whether a science-led and medicine-adopted discourse was really the full explanation for the language of loss related to dementia today. In my second book, The Diseased Brain and the Failing Mind: Dementia in Science, Medicine and Literature of the Long Twentieth Century (2020), I have reflected on the dynamic exchange between scientific and healthcare approaches to dementia, on the one hand, and literary representations of the condition, on the other, since dementia was first described as an organic disease in the 1880s, to the present day, when we think about it as a disorder of cognition. What I have found is that the medical sciences’ main influence in dementia discourse developments has been of a reinforcing nature. Rather than introducing new metaphorical concepts, on several occasions, medico-scientific language paralleled or followed the wider socio-cultural discourse, and was taken to strengthen already existing images. These images often connect the forgetting self to the ageing self.

SAACY takes in a much broader swathe of cultural reflection on ageing. One of its motivations is to investigate the role of dementia in how ageing features in the popular imagination. It aims to challenge the disconnect between the cultural devaluation of ageing as neuropathological decline and the scientific account of senescence as a lifelong biological process. Some of the questions SAACY asks are: What role does dementia play in anticipations and anxieties about old age? How do such preconceptions relate to concerns or experiences related to care? In what way do fears about dying and the end of life contribute to pessimism about ageing?

To answer these questions, SAACY takes a multipronged approach that reaches across disciplines and sectors. Together with Laura Hughes and Joe Wood, the project bridges the medical sciences and humanities and includes the social scientific viewpoint. Literature-based research closely attends to the dialogue between cultural discourses and scientific models of ageing. A further archive-based study addresses implications and connotations of the idea of elderhood in a UK context. A sociological study explores meanings and anticipations of ageing, also in collaboration with some of our project partners in the charity sector, including The Pam Britton Trust for Dementia, Ageing Well Brighton and Hove and Connect Hackney. Involving local charities and their users is central to SAACY’s mission. In collaboration with these local charities as well as major national charities (Centre for Ageing Better, Centre for Policy on Ageing and Age UK) we seek out opportunities for engaging with different people to challenge pessimism about ageing. And bringing the perspectives and convictions of service users into discussion workshops (policy laboratories) with the King’s Policy Institute we aim to develop policy change for the ageing population.

SAACY’s commitment to working with older people means that parts of this research programme incurred delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we now increasingly reach out to different communities and groups to understand their perspectives, anticipations and anxieties about ageing, we look forward to sharing on these activities via this blog as well as our King’s hosted research project website. To get in touch about SAACY, please write to us by e-mail or use this contact form. Shortly, you’ll also be able to register your interest in SAACY’s social scientific inquiry. We welcome contributions to this blog as a platform for conversation between scientific, medical and cultural approaches to ageing that take on pessimism about getting older.

In this story

Martina Zimmermann

Reader in Health Humanities and Health Sciences


The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth (SAACY) is a project funded by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship. It looks at how we talk and think about ageing and how…

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