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Book review: 'Memory's Last Breath' tells a story of forgetting with dignity and candor

Posted June 13

"MEMORY'S LAST BREATH," by Gerda Saunders, Hachette Books, $17.04, 288 pages (nf) (ages 12 and up)

In late 2010, 61-year-old Gerda Saunders was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Émigrés from South Africa, Saunders and her husband had moved to Utah in 1984 to pursue educational and career opportunities. With their two children, the couple built a new life far away from the friends and family they held dear.

Despite the shock of her medical circumstance, Saunders determined to deal with the events head-on. Beginning with a journal she received at her retirement, Saunders started writing her “dementia field notes” to document the changes she was experiencing. Eventually, the records she kept were compiled and published as "Memory’s Last Breath."

Rather than bemoan her circumstances, Saunders determined to be an anthropologist assigned to follow a tribe she denoted as the "dementers." With grace, humor and a large measure of candor, the author records many of the experiences she encountered on her journey to the darkness of forgetting.

Assisted by her husband, children and other loved ones, she explored various avenues of treatment for the debilitating disease that slowly robs victims of the identity they desperately desire to maintain. There are also many experiences that illustrate the gradual descent into forgetfulness that accompanies the loss of cognition. Despite some embarrassment, the author shares many instances where the hated monster robs her of identity and dignity.

Written with wit and a forthright purpose, “Memory’s Last Breath” gives a powerful glimpse into the life of one person on her way to becoming, as Saunders put it, a "zombie." There are moments of true pathos in the book, but the general feeling is a desire to confront the disease and overcome fear.

There is no swearing, immoral behavior or offensive language in this book. Some of the author's experiences may be embarrassing, but are consistent with the disease. Readers may want to also be aware that Saunders does expound and advocate the right to “end-of-life” preparation and application.

Mike Whitmer lives in West Valley City and can be reached at grundelwalken@gmail.com.

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