In Ancient Greece, tragedy was when a character fell to an inevitable fate, usually the consequence of some small mistake in their past. Attempts to escape or thwart this fate only locked them in more tightly. By this definition, Descent is a true tragedy, except that the past mistake was not the central character's but perhaps a small, undetectable error in his genetic code that made him susceptible to dementia.
For Rob, it starts with the loss of his pen, hinting innocuously at memory problems but actually foreshadowing the fundamental loss of identity that dementia will bring. The turning point is when he loses his temper with his daughter over a trivial board game. He accuses her of cheating, calls her a bitch. Research shows we perceive that someone with dementia has changed not when they lose their memories, but when their moral compass goes haywire. 'That's not him', Rob's daughter tells us.
Rob feels himself 'metamorphosing', referring explicitly to Kafka's novella. There is now a hard shell that stops him caring so much about other people's feelings. But it is not only Rob who is in descent. His wife, Cathy, is undergoing her own transformation as she takes on the responsibility of caring for her husband even as he starts caring less for her. The actors playing the couple in this production make their metamorphoses stark, seeming to age years under the stage lights even as the lights in both their eyes go dim.
Rob experiences paranoia - he suspects everyone of moving or even hiding his pen - and is at times physically aggressive towards Cathy. These are common, if less well-known symptoms of dementia. There are hints, too, at the incontinence and loss of physical control that follows. Rob and Cathy are still in their 50s - the prime of life. They were not expecting to have to consider carers and care homes. About 4% of people with dementia are under 65, and it can bring different challenges to living with dementia in later life. It can be harder to recognise and diagnose, and can mean more impact on younger families. Cathy starts grieving Rob before he dies. He has already gone, and the rest is inevitable.
- Michael Regnier
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease - Alzheimer's Research UK
Symptoms - Alzheimer's Society
Carers: Looking After Yourself - Alzheimer's Society
Neurodegeneration and Identity - Psychological Science (2015)
The Inevitability of Tragedy - Edge Induced Cohesion (2013)