Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 223–240 | Cite as

Everyday material engagement: supporting self and personhood in people with Alzheimer’s disease

  • Jayne YatczakEmail author


Threats to the self and personhood of people with ADRD include the disturbing images of Alzheimer’s disease as the death before death, culturally based assumption that status as a full human being is dependent upon cognition and memory, and a decrease in personal possessions with a move to a 24-h care setting. This paper presents the findings of an ethnographic study of self and personhood in Alzheimer’s disease in an American long-term care facility. It argues that the lifeworld in which the self and personhood of individuals with ADRD is actualized is mediated and negotiated through engagement with everyday objects. Using a framework that integrates Material Engagement Theory with Bourdieu’s Practice Theory, it is argued that the study of the material engagement of individuals with ADRD can lead to a better understanding of the lives of individuals with ADRD by focusing on the material and non-discursive aspects of objects. Findings contribute to the understanding of current practice issues in dementia care while shifting the focus away from exclusively biomedical understanding. Paradoxically, people with ADRD, due to their cognitive impairment, may provide us with a more fundamental way to understand the importance of objects in the lives of humans in general.


Alzheimer’s disease Material engagement Practice theory Personhood 



Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation Student Award Program Grant (Grant #1883.SAP).

Compliance with ethical standards

This research was approved by the Wayne State University Human Subjects Review Board.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.


  1. Addis, D., & Tippett, I. (2004). Memory of myself: Autobiographical memory and identity in Alzheimer’s disease. Memory, 12, 56–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ballenger, J. (2006). Self, senility and Alzheimer’s disease in modern America: A history. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Ballenger, J. (2012). Disappearing in plain sight: Public roles of people with dementia in the meaning and politics of Alzheimer’s disease. In L. S. Jacyna & S. T. Casper (Eds.), The neurological patient in history (pp. 109–128). Rochester: University of Rochester Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Basting, A. (2009). Forget Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Beard, R. (2004). In their voices: Identity preservation and experiences of Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 415–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Behuniak, S. (2011). The living dead? The construction of people with Alzheimer’s disease as zombies. Ageing and Society, 31, 70–92. Scholar
  7. Bender, M. (2003). Explorations in dementia: Theoretical and research studies into the experience of remediable and enduring cognitive losses. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd..Google Scholar
  8. Bennett, J. (2004). The force of things: Steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory, 347–372.Google Scholar
  9. Boivin, N. (2004). Mind over matter? Collapsing the mind-matter dichotomy in material culture studies. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden and C. Renfrew, (eds.). Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world. (pp. 63-71). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  10. Bourdieu, P. (1980). The logic of practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction, a social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Caddell, L., & Clare, L. (2010). The impact of dementia on self and identity: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 113–126. Scholar
  13. Casey, E. (2001). Between geography and philosophy: What does it mean to be in the place-world? Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91, 683–693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cohen, D., & Eisdorfer, C. (1986). The loss of self: A family resource for the care of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  15. Cotrell, V. (2005). Possible selves of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Psychology and Aging, 20(2), 285–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Day, K., Carreon, D., & Stump, C. (2000). The therapeutic design of environments for people with dementia: A review of the empirical research. The Gerontologist, 40, 397–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dennett, D. (1996). Kinds of minds. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  18. Diamond, T. (1992). Making gray gold: Narratives of nursing home care. Chicago: University Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fazio, S., & Mitchell, D. (2009). Persistence of self in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia, 8(1), 39–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Foner, N. (1994). The caregiving dilemma: Work in an American nursing home. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  21. Goodwin, C. (2010). Things and their embodied environments. In L. Malafouris & C. Renfrew (Eds.), The Cognitive Life of things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind (pp. 103–118). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  22. Griffith, A. (1995). Mothering, schooling and children’s development. In M. Campell & N. Manicom (Eds.), Knowledge, experience and ruling relations: Studies in the social Organization of Knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gubrium, J. ( 1975). Living and dying at Murray Manor. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia.Google Scholar
  24. Hellstrom, I., Nolan, M., Nordenfelt, L., & Lundh, U. (2007). Ethical and methodological issues in interviewing persons with dementia. Nursing Ethics, 14, 608–619. Scholar
  25. Henderson, N., & Vesperi, M. (1995). The culture of long-term care: Nursing home ethnography. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.Google Scholar
  26. Henry, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  27. Herskovits, E. (1995). Struggling over subjectivity: Debates about the self and Alzheimer’s disease. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 9(2), 146–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hodder, I. (2012). Entangled: An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hubbard, G., Cook, A., Tester, S., & Downs, M. (2002). Beyond words: Older people with dementia using and interpreting nonverbal behavior. Journal of Aging Studies, 16, 155-167.Google Scholar
  30. Hubbard, G., Downs, M., & Tester, S. (2003). Including older people with dementia in research: Challenges and strategies. Aging & Mental Health, 7(5), 351–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kayser-Jones, J. (1981). Old, alone and neglected: Care of the aged in Scotland and the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kitwood, T. (1997). Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Kontos, P. (2005). The personal significance of home: Habitus and the experience of receiving long-term home care. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(2), 161–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kontos, P. (2006). Embodied selfhood: An ethnographic exploration of Alzheimer’s disease. In A. Leibing & L. Cohen (Eds.), Thinking about dementia: Culture, loss, and the anthropology of senility (pp. 195–217). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Laird, C. (1979). Limbo: A Memoir about life in a nursing home by a survivor. Novato: Chandler & Sharp, Pub.Google Scholar
  36. Luken, P., & Vaughan, S. (1991). Elderly women living alone: Theoretical and methodological considerations from a feminist perspective. Housing and Society, 18, 37–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Malafouris, L. (2008a). Between brains, bodies, and things: Tectonoetic awareness and the extended self. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 363, 1993–2002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Malafouris, L. (2008b). At the potter’s wheel: An argument for material agency. In C. Knappett & L. Malafouris (Eds.), Material agency: Towards a non-anthropocentric approach (pp. 19–36). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Malafouris, L. (2010). The brain-artefact interface (BAI): A challenge for archaeology and cultural neuroscience. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 5, 264–273.Google Scholar
  40. Malafouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind: A theory of material engagement. Cambridge: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Malafouris, L. (2015). Metaplasticity and the primacy of material engagement. Time and Mind, 8(4), 351–371. Scholar
  42. Malafouris, L., & Renfrew, C. (2010). Introduction: The cognitive life of things: Archaeology, material engagement and the extended mind. In L. Malafouris & C. Renfrew (Eds.), The cognitive life of things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind (pp. 1–12). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  43. Marshall, M., & Hutchinson, S. (2001). A critique of research on the use of activities with persons with Alzheimer’s disease: A systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 35, 488–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McLean, A. (2007). The person in dementia: A study of nursing home care in the US. Ontario: Broadview Press.Google Scholar
  45. Miller, D. (1983). Things ain’t what they used to be. Introduction. RAIN 59:5-7.Google Scholar
  46. Miller, D. (1987). Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  47. Miller, D. (1998). Material cultures: Why some things matter. Chicago: University Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. O’Connor, D., Phinney, A., Smith, A., Small, J., Purves, B., Perry, J., Drance, E., Donnelly, M., Chaudhury, H., & Beattie, L. (2007). Personhood in dementia care: Developing a research agenda for broadening the vision. Dementia, 6(1), 121–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Olsen, B. (2003). Material culture after text: Re-membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 36(2), 87-104.Google Scholar
  50. Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things: Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Plymouth: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  51. Pellegram, A. (1998). The message in paper. In D. Miller (ed). Material cultures: Why some things matter. (pp. 103-119). London: UCL Press.Google Scholar
  52. Phinney, A. (2006). Family strategies for supporting involvement in meaningful activity by persons with dementia. Journal of Family Nursing, 12, 80–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Post, S. (2000). The moral challenge of Alzheimer’s disease: Ethical issues from diagnosis to dying (2nd ed.). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Renfrew, C. (2004). Towards a theory of material engagement. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 23–31). Oxford: McDonald Institute Monographs.Google Scholar
  55. Sabat, S. (2001). The experience of Alzheimer’s disease: Life through a tangled veil. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  56. Sabat, S. (2002). Surviving manifestations of selfhood in Alzheimer’s disease: A case study. Dementia, 1(1), 25–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sabat, S., & Collins, M. (1999). Intact social, cognitive ability, and selfhood: A case study of Alzheimer’s disease. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 14(1), 11–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Saunders, P. (1998). “My brain’s on strike”- the construction of identity through memory account by dementia patients. Research on Aging, 20(1), 61–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Savishinsky, J. (1991). The ends of time: Life and work in a nursing home. New York: Bergin & Garvey.Google Scholar
  60. Schiffer, M. (1999). The material life of human beings: Artifacts, behavior, and communication. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  61. Shield, R. R. (1988). Uneasy endings: Daily life in an American nursing home. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Stafford, P. (2003). Gray areas: Ethnographic encounters with nursing home culture. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.Google Scholar
  63. Surr, C. (2006). Preservation of self in people with dementia living in residential care: A socio-biographical approach. Social Science and Medicine, 62, 1720–1730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Swartz, D. (1997). Culture & power: The sociology of pierre bourdieu. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  65. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (2014). Code of Federal Regulations. Title 42, Requirements for Long-term Care Facilities.Google Scholar
  66. Usita, P., Hyman, L., & Herman, K. (1998). Narrative intentions: Listening to life stories in Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Aging Studies, 12(2), 185–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Eastern Michigan UniversityYpsilantiUSA

Personalised recommendations