Categories
Films

What They Had

Bridget (played by Hilary Swank), rushes back to her hometown of Chicago after her mother is found wandering, confused in a snowstorm. Her father Burt, (Robert Foster) and brother, Nicky, (Michael Shannon), spend Christmas arguing over whether their mother, Ruth, (Blythe Danner), should be moved into a residential care facility or retire to Florida as the couple had planned. Ruth’s dementia has progressed rapidly. She confuses her children, wanders around the house at night and at one point even makes a pass at her son, mistaking him for someone else. Burt’s reluctant to let his wife move out of the marital home. Nicky’s bluntly adamant that Ruth needs professional care. Bridget sits on the fence, constantly trying to keep the peace and, in the background, Ruth wanders in and out of conversations, talked about, but rarely talked to.

In What They Had, Elizabeth Chomko has captured a very recognisable scene from contemporary American family life. Moving a loved one into permanent residential care is always going to be an emotional experience and Chomko’s managed to include so many of the tropes familiar to this scenario. This film will really resonate with many people who’ve been through a similar experience. This is a family trying to make a difficult decision when there’s no easy solution to the problem they’re facing. For the most part What They Had honestly and realistically explores this distressing situation with a fair degree of warmth and the occasional humorous moment.

Unfortunately, Chomko seems to bottle her nerve towards the end and the final third of the movie resolves too neatly for my liking. Burt passes away quite suddenly. Ruth has a miraculous moment of cognisance where she reassures her daughter that it’s all for the best. He has died at the perfect moment. Any later and she wouldn’t have remembered who he was. Any earlier and she’d have been devastated by the loss. This scene irked me. It felt like a contrived Hallmark moment and completely unbelievable; by this point in the movie Ruth’s dementia was very advanced. With her mother’s blessing and her father no longer around to raise objection, Bridget and Ruth road trip out to California, (Thelma and Louise style in a Cadillac), where Ruth takes up residence in one of those flowery, sunny, quaint care facilities where everyone’s content and smiling. It’s as close as you’re going to get to a happy ending in a movie which centres around dementia. It didn’t work for me. The first two thirds of the film are pretty decent (with stand-out performances from Danner and Shannon), everything goes downhill from there.

What They Had was directed by Elizabeth Chomko and released in the UK in May 2019 

Categories
Films

“Robot and Frank”

American director Jake Schreier’s charming sci-fi, comedy drama, Robot and Frank is set in the not too distant, imaginable future. Frank, (played by Frank Langella), is an aging master burglar now living alone in the country. He’s beginning to show the first signs of dementia and his adult children Madison (Liv Tyler) and Hunter (James Marsden) are becoming increasingly concerned about his well-being. The house is falling into disrepair. Frank’s not eating properly and becoming increasingly confused. Unbeknown to his absent children, most days he walks into a neighbouring town to flirt with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), a librarian in a grand old library which is about to be shockingly modernised and to shoplift from a local gift store. There’s talk of Frank being moved to a memory centre for his own safekeeping. Frank is incredibly resistant to this. He’s spent substantial chunks of his life incarcerated for his crimes and wishes to retain his independence for as long as he can. 

A solution comes in the shape of Robot (voiced by the wonderful Peter Saarsgard). Robot is a kind of AI cross between a butler and a professional carer. He looks like a tiny stormtrooper and soon has Frank’s house and life back in shape. Initially reluctant to embrace Robot, Frank soon warms to the device when he realises Robot’s the perfect sidekick to help him pull off his final heist. The two go on to plan and execute a beautiful piece of cat burglary. There’s a wonderful scene where the local police sergeant, asks for Frank’s help to crack the case. It looks exactly like the kind of perfectly executed crime he’d have pulled off in his younger days. The police officer doesn’t even entertain the thought that an older Frank might still be very capable.

I really enjoyed Robot and Frank. It’s a sweet little film with beautiful performances by Langella and Sarandon. It also raises some interesting questions about the use of AI and technology when it comes to providing dementia care. Frank actually begins to develop a friendship with Robot. His presence in the house goes from being an unwelcome intrusion to something which is both practically and emotionally beneficial; this being the holy grail all technological solutions to healthcare issues are aiming for. The film also takes a gentle look at how ageing is perceived both within familial and societal settings. Both Frank’s children and the people he meets at the library tend to undermine his abilities and dismiss him in different ways. There are some lovely comic touches and a fabulous onscreen rapport between Robot and Frank. If anything, this film goes a little light on the more problematic aspects of assisting someone with dementia to live independently. However, it’s still a heartening and thought-provoking watch.

Robot and Frank was directed by Jake Schreier and released in the UK in March 2013 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Leisure Seeker” by Michael Zadoorian

Ella and John have been together for more than sixty years. Now in their eighties Ella has developed terminal cancer whilst John is living with dementia. Aware that they don’t have all that much time left together they decide to leave their home in the American Midwest and take one last long road trip across America to the California coast. They don’t inform their grown up children of their plan. They sneak away in their 1978 Leisure Seeker RV, (a campervan for those not familiar with the American terminology) and follow a route they’d followed years ago, when their children were much younger. 

John drives, though he’s increasingly confused and occasionally wanders off, sometimes even threatening Ella with violence. Ella organises everything, though she’s often in agony with her illness and becoming progressively more tired as the road trip drags on for days and days. Back at home, their children are frantic, imagining every variation on the worst case scenario. Little do they know. The couple are held up at knife point, suffer a bad fall and, on several occasions, John gets lost leaving Ella panicking and unsure what to do. When Ella phones home to check in with the children, she doesn’t tell them about any of this.

The Leisure Seeker is a strange little novel. It’s very readable, but the tone is quite odd. It’s hard to tell whether the reader’s meant to see this last adventure as a joyous celebration of a life well-lived, or an example of selfishness on Ella’s part. Though she isn’t technically behind the wheel, this is very much her road trip. John does as he’s told throughout the novel. For me this raised real questions about autonomy and freedom. It’s impossible to know whether a man with a cognitive impairment would willingly choose to drive across half of America in a campervan if he understood how dangerous it was. There’s also a strange change of tone at the novel’s close. For two thirds of the book it feels a little like a buddy movie: upbeat, funny, slightly sentimental, and then towards the novel’s end things take a dark turn. I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers but the final scene kind of calls into question the book’s basic premise, that it is possible to live well and fully with dementia. 

Saying all this, for a piece of commercial fiction, the dementia narrative is reasonably accurate and seems to be well-researched. The novel is narrated throughout by Ella so it’s her understanding of her husband’s condition and experience the reader is being presented with. I think this is important to note. From the perspective of dementia, the main questions which The Leisure Seeker left me with were all around autonomy and control. Is it ok that Ella decides everything for John, even if she is married to him?

The Leisure Seeker was published by Harper Collins in 2009

Categories
Films

Marjorie Prime

Michael Amereyder’s ambitious feature film, Marjorie Prime is based on Jordan Harrison’s play of the same name. In the film Lois Smith plays Marjorie, a role she originally played on stage. Marjorie Prime explores issues around AI and ageing in what could’ve been a really interesting way. Marjorie is an elderly lady living with dementia. Her daughter, (played by Geena Davis), and son-in-law, (played by Tim Robbins), live with her. They also employ a live in carer. The depiction of early dementia is very accurate. Marjorie is confused and occasionally forgetful but still very present and able to interact with her family. Her family have purchased a prime of Marjorie’s late husband Walter, (played by Jon Hamm), to keep the old lady company and ensure her brain is stimulated. The prime is a kind of interactive hologram. It looks exactly like Walter in his forties. It talks to Marjorie, gathering up information and memories so it can gradually become more and more human-like in its interactions with her. 

The idea of the prime is really interesting. As Marjorie’s memory fades the information she’s feeding the prime version of Walter is less and less accurate. Her son-in-law also helps to programme the prime with snippets of information he remembers about their relationship. However, in an attempt to protect Marjorie, he censors all the disturbing memories and creates a past for her which never actually existed. I thought this was a fascinating illustration ofhow loved ones often interact with people living with dementia. As memory fades, there is an opportunity to censor, adjust and enhance the stories which are recalled, thereby shaping the person’s sense of reality and ultimately, themselves.

If Amereyder had further explored this idea with Marjorie and her prime, I think this could have been an excellent film. However, I felt it began to lose the thread a little when Marjorie died and her daughter, acquires a Marjorie prime, then the daughter dies, leaving behind a prime for her husband. The final scene shows the three primes talking, sharing a simple story about the family dog which is now so mis-remembered and adjusted, it bears absolutely no similarity to the original anecdote. I’d like to have seen more of the interaction between Marjorie and her prime and perhaps a little more depth to the direction. It feels quite flat in places, a lot like watching a recording of a play. In adapting the stage version for screen, I think Amereyder could have explored a little more of Marjorie’s background and the reality of her past.

Marjorie Prime was directed by Michael Amereyder and released in the UK in October 2017

Categories
Films

The Roads Not Taken

In English director Sally Potter’s most recent feature, The Roads Not Taken, the first discernible words uttered by the main character, are “everything is open.” In a sense this statement, mumbled by Leo, a writer living with Dementia, (perfectly portrayed by Hollywood A-Lister, Javier Bardem), gives the viewer a quick synopsis of the entire film. The screenplay, (also written by Potter), jumps backwards and forwards between three different points in Leo’s life. We see him as a younger man, married to Salma Hayek and mourning the death of their son, in exile from his second marriage, writing alone in Greece and finally as an older man, confused and depleted by the illness, being guided through a single day’s errands around the city in the company of his daughter Molly, (sensitively played by Elle Fanning). Everything is open at the same time in this movie. Time is fluid as Leo’s memory leaps and flits from one period to the next. Potter does a masterful job of capturing the eternal present of living with Dementia where the past can seem just as real and believable as the moment the person is actually living in. I particularly enjoyed the way the movie skipped seamlessly between the various stages of Leo’s life, leaving much unsaid, mumbled or deliberately confusing, so the viewer empathises with the confusion experienced by Leo and his family.

The strongest section of The Roads Not Taken is undoubtedly the strand set in Leo’s present. The relationship between Leo and his daughter Molly -who has taken on much of the carers role- is believable, warm and occasionally heart-breaking. We see Molly’s distress when her father wanders off in the middle of the night. We see her struggle to understand his speech and promise to, “try harder to see it from your point of view. To see what you see.” We see her frustrated when she loses out on a big job because of her responsibilities with her father. We see her irate at the way others treat Leo, speaking over him and patronising him. But what comes across most strongly in Potter’s depiction of their relationship is the way father and daughter continue to find small moments of connection even as the illness forces them apart. There’s a particularly poignant scene in the bathroom at the dentist’s when, having soiled his own trousers, Molly gives her father hers. Even in the midst of humiliation and confusion there are moments when this movie manages to laugh and yet there’s no schmaltzy ending here, no neat conclusion or moment of epiphany. Leo and Molly’s situation is just as complex and difficult at the end of their day together as it was in the opening credits. Neither does Potter attempt to deify Leo or paint Molly as a saint. Both are flawed, occasionally failing characters. This is what makes them believable. 

Bardem is wonderful in this movie. He has a huge presence onscreen and the sheer bulk of his body, though slowed and atrophied by Dementia, refuses to be relegated to the ranks of a shadowy invalid. He is enormously present throughout. The camera often lingers painfully close to his face, exposing every wrinkle and pore. We are forced to look straight and deliberately at Leo as a person, present with his illness. Here, it is impossible to ignore the person living with Dementia. The Roads Not Taken takes an unflinching look at Dementia and our treatment of people living with the illness. To some extent, this unflinching personal gaze makes the viewer feel culpable in the way society has othered, dismissed and ignored the Dementia experience. I don’t think this is any bad thing.

The Roads Not Taken was directed by Sally Potter and released in the UK in September 2020 

Categories
Films

Falling

Falling is actor, Viggo Mortensen’s debut effort as both a writer and director and it is a stunning accomplishment. Mortensen casts himself as John, a successful pilot, living in California with his husband and their adopted daughter. The movie begins, (in quite shocking fashion), with a scene on a plane. John is flying home from the Midwest with his father, Willis, (Lance Henriksen), when the older man’s dementia causes him to forget where he is and create a scene. Willis is in California to look for a smaller property as he transitions away from the large farm he’s no longer capable of looking after. However, nothing goes to plan during his visit: he manages to offend his daughter, played by Laura Dern, forgets he’s agreed to move house and is so belligerent and offensive he insults almost everyone he comes into contact with.

The film moves backwards and forwards between contemporary time -where Henriksen does an incredible job of portraying an older man who is stubborn, angry and ultimately afraid of losing his own autonomy- and the past -where Sverrir Gudnasson plays a much younger version of Willis who is not yet living with dementia but is equally stubborn, angry and intent upon wielding his authority over his family. Mortensen’s portrayal of John is notable for his forbearance and his measured approach to his father. He maintains the same patient demeanour throughout as his father rages, delivers homophobic and racist insults and humiliates him at every turn. Mortensen’s compassion is so marked it makes the moment when he finally loses his temper -railing against his father for years of abuse- one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

It’s so refreshing to come across a narrative which explores the difficult subject of how to care for someone who is not nice and never has been. This topic is rarely covered in books and movies though, in my experience, it’s reasonably common to find someone caring for a family member who has dementia despite a fractured or even abusive relationship. Mortensen handles the material with sensitivity, but he’s also unflinching when it comes to including the harrowing details. I also appreciated the way he resists stereotyping Willard. Yes, this man is a horrible, racist, homophobic, misogynist but he’s also fond of his granddaughter and displays genuine affection for her. This is a difficult watch but a necessary one. I’d thoroughly recommend checking it out. 

Falling was written and directed by Viggo Mortensen and released in the UK in February 2021

Categories
Book Reviews

“Surviving Grace” by Trish Vradenburg

The Washington Star review printed on the back of my copy of Surviving Grace calls this play, “a two-hour Seinfeld,” and this assessment seems particularly apt. The play is sharp, funny, fast-paced and in places a little absurd. It centres around Kate Griswald, a thirty something TV producer and her sixty five year old mother Grace. Kate’s life is hectic. She’s too busy for relationships. Her main focus in life is her career. She’s so busy juggling responsibilities at work she actually missed the birthday party where her mother’s confusion begins to become apparent to the rest of the family.

Grace’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis interrupts Kate’s hectic career. Suddenly, she not only has to worry about placating the actors in her sitcom, she also has to look out for her mother and her father who’s struggling to deal with his wife’s decline. The initial sections of the play address several key issues couples have to face when one develops Dementia. Jack, (Kate’s father), expresses his sadness about his wife’s condition.

“She can’t hold on to a thought anymore. Her mind is a sieve. It kills me to see her like this.”

He complains about the way their old friends now avoid them because they’re either afraid of Grace’s Alzheimer’s or don’t know what to say.

“Alzheimer’s is hurting out social life. You know what Mom said. Only family hangs in there.”

He even acknowledges the way the American healthcare system can wreck havoc on a couple’s finances and savings if one of them develops an illness like Dementia.

“The house is the only thing the government won’t take from you to pay for this. No Medicaid until I’m broke. I checked. Fifty-five thousand a year this costs.”

Eventually Jack can’t take the responsibility of looking after his wife. Grace is moved to a nursing home and Jack finds himself a younger girlfriend. He chooses fun and excitement over responsibility and leaves Kate to pick up the pieces. The play moves away from the traditional Dementia narrative about half way through. Grace is placed on a programme of experimental, (and completely fictional), new drugs which reverse the symptoms of her Alzheimer’s. She begins to recover her language skills and her memories. She shocks her family by informing them that she’s been cognisant and listening to everything they’ve said over the last few months. She wants to use the time she’s be given to travel and enjoy herself. Having gained a taste for the world beyond her nursing home, Grace refuses to return from her travels and without the Alzheimer’s-blocking drug regime, begins to decline for a second time.

Surviving Grace is a funny, intriguing, irreverent look at a family dealing with a Dementia-diagnosis in a truly unique way. Not every theme is developed fully and I’m still not entirely certain what Vradenburg hoped to achieve with the inclusion of a miracle cure. Yet, it raises lots of questions about consent and responsibility. It made me laugh in several places and offers an interesting alternative to the usual nursing home experience. It even includes a bit of romance.

Surviving Grace was published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in 2003. 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Madonnas of Leningrad” by Debra Dean

Debra Dean’s beautiful novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad is one of a handful of key texts we’ll be exploring as part of our research project. We’ll be sharing and discussing extracts from the novel during our forthcoming reading groups. The story shuttles between a wedding on an island in contemporary America and the autumn of 1941 where we first meet a much younger Marina, resident in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. As the city is under siege Marina struggles to survive in appalling conditions and yet while moving the museum’s masterpieces away for safekeeping, she finds solace in committing each image to memory. Many years later, during her granddaughter’s wedding, an older Marina experiences flashbacks of her old life in Russia and, as a result of the Alzheimer’s she’s living with, becomes increasingly confused about where, and indeed, when she is.

The Madonnas of Leningrad is an exquisitely written novel. It is worth reading alone for the beautifully drawn descriptions of the artwork Marina is so fond of. It also provides a gentle but accurate portrait of a family doing their best to nurture and accommodate their elderly parents as they deal with the implications of dementia. I found the scenes towards the novel’s close when Marina wanders from her hotel room particularly affective emotionally. Dean does a wonderful job of recording the fears and frustrations of the family as they try to track Marina down before it’s too late. Both her portraits of Marina’s husband and daughter are incredibly honest and accurate.

However, the thing I loved most about The Madonna’s of Leningrad was Dean’s ability to use the flashback device within her novel to effectively capture Marina’s confusion. As the story progresses and the reader is transported further and further into the backstory of Marina’s past, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where the line between past and present lies. There were several moments when I had to stop and concentrate in order to locate Marina’s narrative. Was she describing a present scene, or something from many decades ago? I loved this natural sense of confusion. It helped me empathise with Marina’s experience. I felt like I was seeing and thinking through the lens of her muddled up memory. Past blurred with present. Fears and anxieties long left behind began to take on a fresh urgency. It was a very immersive reading experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and the way Dean expertly reveals the rich life Marina has lived by using fractured snippets of her memory.

The Madonnas of Leningrad was published by Fourth Estate in 2006 

Categories
Book Reviews

“Hour of the Bees” by Lindsay Eagar

Hour of the Bees is Utah-based YA writer, Lindsay Eagar’s debut novel. It’s a captivating story about a family spending a summer together on the sprawling sheep ranch which has been in their family for generations. The story centres around twelve year old Carol. At first Carol isn’t at all keen to give up her entire summer holidays to spend time with her grandfather, Serge on a sheep ranch in the middle of nowhere. Carol, her half-sister Alta, and little brother Lu are used to their life back in the city, with their friends and all the comforts of home. There’s absolutely nothing to entertain them on the sheep ranch, worse still the whole area’s been subject to a drought for decades and the summer months are unbearably hot. Carol and her family don’t really have a choice in terms of where they spend their summer. Serge is extremely elderly and has grown frail. His advancing dementia means he’s increasingly confused, mixing the past with the present and sometimes even mistaking Carol for his late wife as a girl. Serge is moving to a residential care facility at the end of the summer and the family have only a few months to get the ranch fixed up before it’s put up for sale.

Eagar weaves a beautiful magical realist story through the more familiar story of a family struggling to cope with change in the present and resurfacing hurts from the past. Carol grows close to her grandfather as he tells her a long and enchanting fairy tale about her families origins. She comes to understand that her roots and identity are tightly bound to the ranch and ultimately begins to empathise with Serge’s insistence that the land should stay in the family and not be sold to strangers. It’s a beautifully written story and a really enjoyable read with strong emphasis on the importance of listening to older people and valuing family connections.

However, I really struggled with the dementia narrative in this novel. Serge’s dementia feels like a kind of device used to propel the plot. He’s portrayed as confused and frail when the story requires him to be an object of pity or a bone of contention, grating up against the family’s plans. At other points he’s almost miraculously coherent and portrayed as quite strong and virile for such an elderly man. For example, though he frequently finds communication difficult he’s able to narrate, long and extremely eloquent stories about his past. I understand that the magic realist narrative running through the novel allows for a certain amount of liberty to be taken with how the characters are portrayed but I’d be a little concerned that young people with no experience of dementia who read this novel might not get an accurate idea of what the illness is actually like. Eagar, also weaves in a semi-miraculous happy ending for Serge and Carol which is very different from most people’s end of life experience with a loved one who has dementia. It’s an ongoing struggle when reading and writing fictional dementia narratives. The characters need to be written accurately and ethically and yet are also there to serve the story. For me, the balance isn’t quite right in Hour of the Bees, but it’s still an enjoyable read. 

Hour of the Bees was published by Walker Books in 2016 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’ve been in two minds as to whether I should include Brit Bennett’s bestselling second novel, The Vanishing Half in my list of Dementia fiction narratives. The greater part of the novel does not touch upon the subject of Dementia. It’s an engaging, and incredibly timely, exploration of race issues in North America. Twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, have grown up in Mallard, a tiny rural southern black community where lightness of skin is seen as desirable. The twins escape Mallard at the earliest opportunity and move to the big city where their lives diverge and take very different paths. Desiree marries a black man and after the relationship falls apart, moves back to her mother’s house in Mallard, with her daughter who is significantly darker than her. Stella, finding she can pass as white, marries a rich white man and moves to the West coast where her daughter grows up entirely unaware that she is mixed race. 

It’s a brilliant novel and a really engaging read and, like many contemporary novels, does not touch on the theme of Dementia until the final chapters. Lately, I’ve been noticing this as a reoccurring trope in contemporary fiction, especially novels which follow a kind of family saga narrative arc. As the protagonists -in this case the twins’ mother- grows older, they develop Dementia. I’m not questioning the appropriateness of Bennett’s choice to explore Mrs Vignes’ Dementia experience so late in the novel. However, in some novels, Dementia can feel like a tagged on afterthought or a neat way to resolve unresolvable plot issues. I’ve been noticing an increasing tendency to use a character with Dementia as a plot device. Confusion, memory loss and failure to recognise familiar people can, in fictional terms, be a handy device for creating mystery or suspending a moment of revelation. This is particularly apparent in the current craze for Dementia narratives in crime fiction. (I hope to write more about this at a later date). 

In The Vanishing Half, Mrs Vignes’ Dementia allows Bennett to swiftly and seamlessly reintroduce the long lost twin Stella, who has returned to Mallard decades after her initial escape. Her mother’s confusion and her inability to tell past from present means she accepts her prodigal daughter’s unexpected return with absolutely no questions. For Mrs Vignes’ it’s as if Stella never left. The cynic in me, could argue that Bennett uses Dementia as a handy device to resolve a lot of her plot lines in a swift and overly simplistic way. It’s awfully neat, to watch a family who’ve been fragmented and at loggerheads for three hundred pages, become united by their mother and grandmother’s Dementia for a handful of pages at the novel’s end. However, for the most part Bennet’s portrayal of Mrs Vignes’ Alzheimer’s is reasonably convincing and it’s so rare to see an exploration of Dementia within a black community I felt it important to include The Vanishing Half

I also felt compelled to note that Bennett’s inclusion of the line, “Alzheimer’s Disease was hereditary, which meant that Desiree would always worry about developing in,” is neither helpful nor accurate. Less than 1% of Dementia diagnosis are hereditary and ill-informed statements like this can cause distress and even panic in readers. I enjoyed The Vanishing Half immensely and I will defend to the hilt, the writer’s right to explore and record other’s experiences. But when it comes to publishing factual statements like the one above, especially in widely read novels like The Vanishing Half, I think it’s absolutely essential that the information conveyed is well-researched and accurate.

The Vanishing Half was published by Dialogue Books in 2020