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Navigating Dementia: A Personal Story and a New Take on Tradition

Hand holding a paper sheet with human head icon broken into pieces over a crowded street background. Concept of memory loss and dementia disease. Alzheimer’s losing brain and memory function.

Dating back to 1900, orators of Emerson College have performed for their peers through the Southwick Recital, traditionally presenting oral interpretations of literature. However, since reviving the Southwick last year,  Executive-in-Residence Ken Grout sought to adapt the tradition.

“Telling stories is something that we do at Emerson, but I think we sometimes lose sight of the basics,” Grout said. For the Fall 2021 Southwick Recital, Grout blended the basics of storytelling with the personal and clinical realities of a broad category of neurological disease.

Under the title, “Navigating Dementia,” the two-part presentation illustrated the effects of dementia  on both the victim  and those close to them. First, Grout presented “Who is she?”—a personal narrative crafted from his experience caring for his wife, Martha, who was diagnosed with dementia. Recounting his experience helping residents of a nursing home as a teenager, Grout juxtaposed his adolescent attitudes towards those with “memory issues” with the later experience of discovering Martha’s dementia and the obstacles that followed.

The second half was a panel discussion relating to topics Grout raises in  “Who is she?” The panel included faculty members Laura Glufling-Tham and Lindsay Griffin of Communication Sciences and Disorders department, Gregory Payne of Communication Studies department, advocate and author  advocate and author Katrien Goethals, and caregiver and consultant Judy Johanson.

“Navigating Dementia” was an unconventional take on the Southwick Recital, as personal narratives like Grout’s are rare within the oratory tradition.

“Even though I have read it in rehearsal 56 times, I never know which thing is going to get me,” Grout said regarding his piece. “There are times that I have gone through rehearsing it in my house and I’ve gotten through the whole thing, just dry-eyed and sort of like I’m saying the news. And there are other times I can’t even get halfway through it.”

Grout started writing “Who is she?” at the beginning of the semester and had a solid draft by mid-September. November 5 was his first time performing the 35-minute piece live.

“It was very personal. I didn’t know how it was going to be because you can rehearse it as many times as you want in the privacy of your home,” Grout said. “But your dining room chairs and your living room sofa don’t give much feedback. And to be in a real space, in the dark, and to sort of know that people were there even if I didn’t see them… It’s very challenging to do anything like that.”

This vulnerability manifests itself in particular lines of his narrative. 

“This beast, this dementia, it is the inconsistency of the thing that plays havoc with the human spirit,” Grout asserts when detailing how his wife became someone “he didn’t know.”

“My wife has been gone now for years, but she still won’t leave,” he shares. “There are days when I wish she would. I used to feel bad for thinking that, but I try not to anymore.”

Grout said the emotional drain of depicting the trying details of his and Martha’s experience affected the way he delivered “Who is she?” for Southwick. 

“I sort of had to take some of my own medicine that I feed my students,” Grout said. “I had to take the medicine about how to breathe and how to allow yourself the space to be nervous, but also just be present.”

Ken Grout, Executive-in-Residence in Emerson’s Communication Studies department.

Grout teaches CC 100: Fundamentals of Speech Communication and CC 264: Oral Interpretation of Literature each year. Some of his students from CC 100 attended the recital.

“[Ken] speaks with confidence and isn’t afraid to show his personality,” Grant Wilson ’25 said. “This translated to his onstage performance because he spoke in the same way. His appearing comfortable speaking made me feel comfortable laughing, smiling, or sobbing. I was inspired and touched by Ken’s strength. ”

Wilson and other audience members said they internalized Grout’s message of empathizing with others and honoring their backstories.

“Knowing people is hard,” Grout said at the conclusion of his narrative. “Everyone has a backstory. We may never know the backstories of other people. Even the people we love, we may never have the full backstory. But we need to accept its presence, and we need to honor its impact. I can only hope that whoever encounters Martha is aware of that.”

With “Navigating Dementia” completed, plans for the spring Southwick are in motion. Collaborating with the Department of Comedic Arts, Grout said they will “push the boundaries” more, maintaining tradition but also evolving the recital’s content. The Spring 2022 Southwick is scheduled for February 25.

“It is that tradition of storytelling, whether personal narrative, whether it’s prose, whether it’s poetry or drama… That’s the tradition that all of this is based on and communicating that message to an audience, that’s what we’re all doing here,” Grout said. “If this didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. I don’t know how you get more fundamental than that.”

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Isa Luzarraga View All

Isa is a freshman journalism major double-minoring in media studies and political science. She is from Omaha, Nebraska and is loving acclimating to city life. Outside of school and organizations, Isa is a contributing writer for New York-based Keke Magazine and a freelancer for other publications. She is a lover of baked goods, petting dogs, and long runs in the Common.

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