Culture Trips

Film’s struggle to help us understand the pain of dementia

In the film Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play siblings who try to convince their father it might be time to find a nursing home for their mother, Ruth, who has Alzheimer’s. Blythe Danner plays the latter character sensitively, and Chomko highlights the familial discord that dementia can exacerbate: tensions flare between the siblings and their father, as they try to make a decision about Ruth’s care. For Elena, the film’s sense of humour was what made it impactful: “The illness is certainly something where at times you have to laugh or else you’ll scream or cry. I think you have to have a sense of humour about it, even if it’s a very dark or warped sense of humour, and there’s moments where What They Had showed that.”

The issue of care

What They Had also touches on an element that is often overlooked in conversation around the portrayal of dementia: the responsibility which falls to families, due to a lack of social infrastructure for dementia patients. Having watched my mother and grandmother care for Great Grandma May, I know how frustrating and upsetting this experience can be. When my family applied for help from the local healthcare authority, they claimed May was not a priority, despite the fact she was a 90-year-old woman whose primary carer was her son, who had schizophrenia and was in his 60s. They would only provide assistance when the situation reached a crisis point, as when May fell in her bathroom, blocking the door, and had to be rescued by the fire service. Following this, my grandparents had to self-fund for the 18 months May lived in a nursing home receiving round-the-clock care. This is often a last resort for families, as there is a great deal of stigma around nursing homes, and they often feel like they have “failed” a relative by having to rely on this more permanent form of care.

In Michele Haneke’s devastating Amour (2012), Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne begins to experience dementia symptoms and makes her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) promise he won’t put her in a care home. Despite his own frailty, he cares for her until the end. This is a situation which is all too common, according to Dening: “Over the years I’ve seen that so many times, where you have two older people in a spousal relationship, [and one of them] physically and psychologically having to support their partner with dementia. One of them may then have to go into hospital or die, and only then do we become aware of the degree of disability they’ve been coping with. We see those stories on a daily basis.”

A question of whose dementia experience is “worthy” of representing also lingers. Kristen Johnson’s wonderfully thoughtful documentary Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) shows her father living with dementia – and acting out various elaborate death scenes, as well as his own funeral – but their financial security means they can provide care in their own home. Similarly, The Father depicts an affluent family, while another new film about dementia, Supernova, starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, is a superbly acted, heartbreaking story of a relationship tested by the impact of Alzheimer’s that again focuses on those with quite a comfortable financial situation.

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