As memory fades

Author and academic Gerda Saunders was diagnosed with cerebral microvascular disease, a precursor of dementia, and has been living with the disease for over a decade. She embarked on a journey of self-discovery and inquiry as the effects of the illness begin to unravel her identity. KUER’S RadioWest Films director Kelsie Moore, in collaboration with PBS Utah’s producer Sally Shaum, present her powerful and touching story in “The Gerda That Remains,” premiering Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. on PBS Utah.

As a child, Saunders was shaped by her academic experience and questioning nature, which carried over into a career of writing and teaching math, science, English and gender studies. But in the prime of her life’s work, Saunders’ brain began to fail her. Her degenerative brain became a new space for study from a scientific and personal perspective. “Every time my brain suffers an additional insult, I have less brainpower to puzzle out my remaining self,” Saunders said.

Moore said, “While it seems as though many of us have experienced a loved one’s suffering from dementia, the process of losing memories and the emotional turbulence that has on one’s sense of self is an elusive and foreign experience to me. Gerda’s poetic ability to describe her loosening grip on reality and her evolving perceptions of who she is is why this film exists. It’s a service to let someone into your inner world and another level yet to trust someone else to tell your story; so, I feel honored and proud to have made this film considering Gerda’s vulnerability. Her wisdom was enlightening. It felt like a series of coffee dates with a best friend.”

In the documentary, filmed throughout six years, Saunders moves through her changing realities with intimacy and honesty in front of the camera. Viewers are drawn into her psychological experience as she navigates the loss of certain parts of her intellectual identity as it happens. While her verbal skills remain strong, the toll loss takes over the years is evident.

As the disease progresses, Saunders reveals what remains of who she is and what pieces she must let go of. Months of isolation and separation from family and friends during a pandemic create further anxiety and agitation, pulling Saunders deeper into herself, and despair.

Peter, Saunders’ husband of 50 years, is witness to her day-to-day decline. With tenderness and patience, he creates safe spaces and manages Saunders’ daily regimen: tracking her solo walks with his GPS, making the bed together, assisting Saunders with her online blog and helping plan her day—often accompanied by laughter and a personal touch.

Shaum said, “I was thrilled at the opportunity to collaborate with and support Kelsie Moore’s vision to tell such a tender and moving story. I’m so grateful to Gerda and Peter for welcoming me into their lives to witness the honesty, love and care expressed within the Saunders’ family.”

Saunders, anchored in knowledge and understanding as a teacher and scientist, shows us what memory loss feels like, observing pieces of her identity as they slowly fall away. In the end, Saunders will attempt to reclaim the control dementia holds over her by choosing how she will leave this world. “There will come a time when I don’t care or know who I am,” said Saunders. “When physical life stops, everything about you reverts to chaos. That moment when you cease having the ability to make your mark in the world as a human when that is gone… I don’t feel sadness for the body that is left.”