My aunt has Alzheimers. When I visit her I have to talk in the present tense – like a running commentary on how we currently are. She can’t remember where she comes from, what she ate that day, if she had family, Christmas or any concept like reading or going on holiday or love. Is she still Angela, my aunt? Is it possible to live with no memory or is it just existing? Does it matter that she feels loved?

Philosopher's reply

Dear Susan

Philosophy struggles to find the right tone of voice to address questions which, like yours, arise out of suffering as well as curiosity. But here goes. It’s sad to see someone with Alzheimer’s partly because it is they who are diminished by it: the pity is that there’s a continuous personal history which includes both your aunt as she once was and the disintegrating person you now go to visit. So I’d say it’s still her.

On love: it matters hugely to small babies to be touched, held and so on – as we say, loved – and they cannot manage the thought that the person holding them today is the same as the one who did so yesterday. So I’d say the same for your aunt. And thought aside, who’s to say that your aunt doesn’t know your touch so being touched by you makes her feel loved in a way she wouldn’t if touched by a stranger?


Philosopher's profile

Edward Harcourt

Oxford University, UK

My working time with IM has been spent mainly with 'Vision and Choice in Morality' - that substantive content gets sneaked into or shut out of philosophy by the demands of mere 'form' is still a fertile idea - or with The Sovereignty of Good. How the capacity to love a particular other well relates (or fails to) to goodness more broadly is a constant theme of mine. I also love the novels, not least for the hijacking (if it is really that) of philosophical language to describe everyday affairs.

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