No Aging in India
Alzheimer's, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things
by Lawrence Cohen
2003 J. I. Staley Prize
As a medical anthropologist, Lawrence Cohen writes about age and "its appearance and disappearance in the making of knowledge." An examination of senility and the radically divergent narratives surrounding it in North America and India are at the core of No Aging in India: Alzheimer's, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things, a book Cohen describes as "rooted in a sense that our practices of thinking about society, culture, the body, and the nature of our times would benefit from a sustained attention to age as a kind of difference."
Cohen studied geriatric and gerontological practice in the United States as a medical student before moving his research to India, where he found no diagnostic counterpart to the North American preoccupation with what has been labeled Alzheimer's disease. Instead, emerging problems with the elderly were framed in "postcolonial worries about the modern breakdown of the traditional joint family as the socio-moral cause of demented behavior in old people." Senility, according to this logic, occurs only when younger family members have failed to properly care for their elders.
"Without denying the usefulness of Alzheimer's as an explanation for a certain set of behaviors," said an Anthropological Quarterly reviewer, "Cohen challenges us to rethink the medicalization of old age that takes place when we reduce all of the social, political, and existential complexities of aging to the plaques and tangles of a biological brain disease." Reviewing for Choice, S. A. Tyler wrote, "This intriguing book attempts to resolve the oppositions between medically and culturally defined aging."
Hailed as "beautifully written and analytically sophisticated," No Aging in India draws from a panoply of sources: Western tabloid representations of Alzheimer's, international gerontology conferences, medical texts from the U.S. and India, ancient Indian epics, contemporary Hindi novels, and advertisements for Ayurvedic old age tonics. In addition, Cohen conducted ethnographic fieldwork in four neighborhoods of Varanasi.
While No Aging in India can be read "for its powerful ethnographic descriptions of Indian old people and their families and for its subtle analysis of the sociology and semiotics of aging," said Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, "this exquisitely crafted book also offers a sophisticated non-reductionist theorization of biology, culture, and economics."
Lawrence Cohen, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology and the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley