Categories
Films

Away From Her

Canadian director, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her was one of my first encounters of a dementia narrative on the big screen. Polley wrote the screenplay based on Alice Munro’s beautiful short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain and was determined from the outset to cast Julie Christie in the lead as Fiona, a smart, passionate woman who is enjoying her retirement until she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We follow Fiona and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), along a familiar journey from slight confusion, to wandering, a diagnosis and memory test and finally the moment where Fiona herself decides it’s best if she moves into a residential care facility.

It’s refreshing to watch a film about dementia which focuses on a couple’s relationship. Away From Her is frank in the way it deals with issues around sex, intimacy and separation. We see Grant and Fiona making love for the final time on the day he moves her into the care facility. He’s heartbroken by the mandatory 30 day no contact policy. They haven’t been apart in more than forty years. By the time he returns to visit Fiona, she’s no longer clear about who he is and she’s developed a close attachment to another resident; a man called Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whom she’d been friendly with as a girl. Grant is now faced with a dreadful dilemma. His wife is only happy in the company of another man. Any attempts to separate them lead to deep depression on Fiona’s part. 

This is a stunningly acted and sensitive exploration of a really difficult issue which occasionally arises in dementia care. Polley gives us an insight into both perspectives, adding layers of nuance when she reveals that Grant is not entirely blameless. He’s been unfaithful to Fiona in the past. It’s also an incredibly accurate snapshot of what residential care can be like. Polley’s quick to point out the profound differences between the first floor, where the cognisant residents live, and the much-dreaded second floor where people are moved when their dementia develops. It’s a familiar and thought-provoking portrait of residential care, raising important questions about dignity, independence and quality of life. Away From Her is also a captivating story with fine performances from the central actors including the always fabulous Olympia Dukakis who’s a star turn as Aubrey’s wife.

Away From Her was directed by Sarah Polley and adapted from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain. It was released in the UK in April 2007

Categories
Book Reviews

“About My Mother” by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman

Tahar is sitting at his mother’s bedside listening to her long-hidden secrets and stories unfold. Lalla Fatma has dementia. She is confused about where and when she’s living. As the novel plays out she frequently digresses back to her childhood in Fez in the 1940s. She’s no longer aware that she’s actually living in Tangier in 2000. In a series of snapshots from her past she talks about her three arranged marriages, her children, her extended family and the friendships she’s had across the years. These flashback scenes were my favourite parts of About My Mother. They are rich with detail and offer a real insight into Moroccan culture, illuminating practices and beliefs I’ve never come across before. In the first half of the novel these flashback sections provide a structure for the narrative, separating the past and the present into distinct chapters. As the novel progresses and Lalla Fatma’s condition becomes worse, time becomes a muddier concept. We flick between past and present at a dizzying speed and the narrative alternates between the impressions and memories of Lalla Fatma and her son.

The text is often disjointed and difficult to follow, mimicking the old woman’s confusion. There are painfully accurate descriptions of how the dementia has affected her temperament. She is particularly harsh towards her live-in carer, a close family friend, and struggles to abandon her independence as she becomes more and more dependent on others for her everyday care. There are also a number of very believable but nonetheless upsetting descriptions of how the aging process has negatively impacted Lalla Fatma’s physicality. Her memories of her own early sexual experiences and her young body contrast sharply with the descriptions of how age and infirmity have left her physical diminished, bedridden and incontinent. 

About My Mother is not an easy read. There are very few moments of levity in the text. It is an intense novel exploring both dementia and female identity within a patriarchal oppressive society. However, what shone through for me was the beautiful language and effortless descriptions of Moroccan culture which conjured up a striking picture of a country I’ve only once visited, but instantly loved. I also found the relationship between Tahar and his mother an incredibly moving one. There’s a deep and clear bond between the two which allows them to find points of connection throughout Lalla Fatma’s illness, right up until the moment of her death.

About My Mother was published by Telegram in 2016 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Built Moment” by Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw’s most recent poetry collection, The Built Moment is split into two sections, the first of which explores her father’s journey with dementia. The poems included are, in my opinion, some of the finest and most memorable writing about dementia I’ve come across whilst reading extensively on the subject. I’ve repeatedly found that poetry, with its use of white space, metaphor and resonant language provides a good vehicle through which to express some of the more difficult to quantify aspects of dementia. Greenlaw’s writing blew me away. 

There’s a warmth to these poems which reveals the relationship between the poet and her father and this often translates into a kind of desperation where the poet admits her own inability to help or arrest the progress of the illness, “I tell him I am saving him as quickly as I can.” There are even moments of genuine humour. I particularly enjoyed “The Finishing Line” where the poet’s brother, sitting at his father’s bedside, shares an anecdote about running a race dressed as a gorilla. It reminded me of the muddle and mixed emotions of tending to a much-loved family member’s illness where all the feelings sit close to the surface: sorrow, grief, and also joy. 

However, the thing I found most moving about The Built Moment was Greenlaw’s ability to pin down in words, the experiential side of dementia both from her own and her father’s perspective. It’s notoriously difficult -I know, I’ve tried- to write about an experience as strange as dementia when it isn’t something you’ve been through yourself in your own mind and body. Greenlaw uses evasive, slippery, meandering phrases and words to effectively convey how it must feel to be present and also becoming absent at the same time. “My father has lost his way out of the present./ Something is stopping him leaving, nothing becomes/ the immediate past.” One poem is called “My father has no shadow” and another, “While he can still speak,” in which he talks to his hands and legs as he gets dressed, suggesting he now sits at some distance from his own self. 

It’s the use of language which has had me returning to this collection repeatedly over the last year or so. Greenlaw more than most writers I’ve come across is using words to say the unsayable. She does so with a masterful lightness of touch.

The Built Moment was published by Faber & Faber in 2019

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

“Frangipani House” by Beryl Gilroy

Frangipani House, Guyana born novelist Beryl Gilroy’s first book is set in her own birthplace. The novel’s title refers to a residential care facility where elderly women are sent to live out their final days. Mama King, the novel’s chief protagonist is forcing to move into the home by a delegation of absent children and grandchildren. She’s quite convinced that she’d be better off managing by herself and goes out of her way to be as obstreperous as possible, frequently clashing heads with the home’s owner and ultimately making a break for freedom, to live on the streets with a rag tag collection of other homeless people who give her the care and kindness she has not experienced from either her family or the people they’ve paid to look after her.

Frangipani House, like many texts of its era, does not use the term dementia, however it’s clear that Mama King is becoming more and more confused as the novel progresses. She frequently forgets where and when she’s living, mixing the past with the present and has conversations with people who aren’t present. She is not as capable of looking after herself as she’d like to think. Mama King also gives us an insight into how the other residents of Frangipani house are treated. Several are much more confused than she is. Including one ninety year old lady who inconveniently passes away, just before her birthday celebrations. The staff decide there’s no point wasting all the party food. They wheel the dead woman out in her chair and tell the other residents she’s just napping so they can continue to celebrate. A number of anecdotes like this reveal how the elderly residents are not treated with the respect and honour they deserve.

Frangipani House is a wonderful exploration of how ageing is perceived within this particular African community. The younger people talk a lot about respecting their elders and yet, when it comes to delivering physical care, they are quick to institutionalize their parents and delegate responsibility. Gilroy also explores the role of the older woman. Mama King has been a mother not only to her own daughters, but also to their children. Her girls, having emigrated to America, send their children home to be raised in Guyana. Gilroy’s novel questions how fair this system is. The children expect their mothers to provide free childcare, but when it comes to caring for these women in their later years, the same children shirk their responsibility. Frangipani House is a slim novel yet it is rich with detail and colour and full of well-placed observations about what it means to be elderly, female and African.

Frangipani House was published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1986 

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
Book Reviews

“There Were No Windows” by Norah Hoult

The acclaimed Irish novelist, Norah Hoult wrote There Were No Windows during the Second World War when she was living in Bayswater, London close to the ageing writer, Violet Hunt. Hoult based her novel’s protagonist, Claire Temple very closely on Violet Hunt: garnering some criticism for how recognisable Hunt was in Temple’s character. The portrait is far from flattering. Claire Temple is a once popular society lady and reasonably successful writer who is now losing her memory. She is paranoid, delusional, frequently confused and often unpleasant to the cook, Kathleen and paid companion, Miss Jones who are now her only company. Outside the house, London is in the grip of the Blitz, with daily air raids, rationing and black out restrictions in place. Claire regularly forgets the War is going on as she drifts between lamenting her loneliness and fantasising about her former high life. Hoult has managed to create an incredibly believable archetypal spinster, (in the vein of Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne). She is not nice enough to evoke the reader’s sympathy but is pathetic enough to seem pitiful. 

The novel was first published in 1944 and is incredibly interesting because, though it doesn’t name Claire’s condition as dementia, it is one of the earliest extended explorations of the illness I’ve managed to come across in fiction. Different characters explain Claire’s behaviour using different terms. She is senile. She is doting. She is frequently called mental. This is hardly surprising. The modern usage of the word dementia is a relatively recent development. Her symptoms suggest early stage dementia. Hoult uses her character’s dialogue and internal thought process to give us a really intriguing insight into how Claire herself feels about her condition. She wanders off in her slippers and suffers from terrible insomnia. She is paranoid that the servants are plotting together and stealing from her. She has almost no short term memory and frequently repeats herself. She is, by the close of the novel, becoming aggressive and increasingly violent. None of the other characters, including the doctor, seem to know quite what to do with her.

As a period piece, There Were No Windows is incredibly useful and enlightening. It gave me a wonderful insight into how dementia was viewed back in the war years. Claire is fortunate enough to have a house and financial resources to utilise. It is likely that without finances, she would have been quickly institutionalised. And yet, her experience is far from pleasant. She has lost autonomy over her body, her finances and her creativity. She is constantly lonely, and particularly misses the intellectual company she was used to. Her staff are rude and dismissive. They don’t attempt to understand her condition. They fluctuate between bullying and infantilising Claire. There were so many moments in this novel when I wished to sit them down and explain why Claire’s dementia was causing her to act out of character. 

There Were No Windows is a stunningly written novel -perhaps even one of Hoult’s best- and I thoroughly enjoyed it as both a piece of fiction and an incredibly believable dementia narrative. There’s still so much more education about dementia which needs to take place but I’m so glad people are no longer quite so ignorant about the illness. Poor Claire’s treatment is horrific and dehumanising. I’m thankful this is no longer the norm.

There Were No Windows was published by Readers Union in 1946

Categories
Book Reviews

“Flight” by Oona Frawley

Irish novelist, Oona Frawley’s debut novel Flight is a beautifully observed portrait of four lives intersecting. It’s set just outside Dublin in 2004 as a referendum on citizenship approaches. Sandrine is a pregnant Zimbabwean women who has left her husband and son at home seeking to better herself and ultimately gain citizenship for them all in Ireland. Sandrine finds herself working as a live-in carer for Tom and Claire, a rich retired couple who have lived in Ireland, America and Vietnam, following Tom’s career as a spice importer. Tom is now living with advanced dementia and their daughter Elizabeth hires Sandrine to look after him and also keep an eye on Claire, who is increasingly confused herself. Tom is soon moved to a residential care facility and passes away soon after. Within a few month’s Claire’s conditioned deteriorates in a similar way and she too passes away in a nursing home.

I really enjoyed reading Flight. The prose is so carefully crafted and evocative. As the perspective moves between the protagonists it’s really easy to imagine the same situation as slightly different when seen through their eyes. It’s very much a novel concerned with the idea of memory. Whilst Elizabeth struggles with how she was brought up, flitting between various countries and various homes, Claire longs for Vietnam and the lifestyle of her younger days. As her memories merge and become confused, her senses frequently take her back to Vietnam. Sandrine is also constantly interrogating her understanding of the past and what it means to belong to a place. Thrown together, the big quiet house the three women inhabit, comes to feel like a kind of dream scape where time and reality are both confused. There’s also a sense that the women are struggling to connect. They all seem to be lonely, though they’re constantly together. They don’t seem to know how to communicate with each other. It’s only when Sandrine has her baby that she and Elizabeth finally connect, bonding as equals over the baby and talking honestly about their lives.

As a dementia narrative, Flight is intriguing. There are very few of the common tropes played upon here. Neither Tom nor Claire is prone to wandering. They don’t seem to forget each other or confuse their daughter for someone else. Their journey with dementia is more of a kind of gentle erasure. They are less and less present as the novel progresses. Both pass away calmly in their sleep as if succumbing to the last stage of what’s been a kind of extended dream.

Flight was published by Tramp Press in 2014 

Categories
Films

Quartet

Based on Ronald Hardwood’s successful stage play of the same name, Quartet is actor Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut. The film adaptation’s absolutely packed to the gills with wonderful British actors of a certain vintage. It’s refreshing to see a film with so many meaty parts for older people. The plot’s quite simple. Beecham House is a retirement home for elderly musicians and it’s threatened with closure. When the movie opens Cedric (Michael Gambon) is rallying the troops. They’ll organise a gala performance showcasing their talents in order to raise enough money to save their home. The gala’s in need of a headline act and when Jean (Maggie Smith) moves into Beecham House, everyone assumes the concert is saved. Back in the day Jean was the star turn in a fantastic quartet comprising of fellow residents, Reg (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins). You’ll not be too surprised to hear that their plans don’t go smoothly but eventually the gala concert takes place and the home is saved. 

As the film depicts a large residential care facility, a number of the minor characters are living with dementia. The film makes much of their forgetfulness and general confusion but shies away from exploring the more difficult aspects of the illness. For the most part, this is a very gentle exploration of dementia. The older people are depicted as a little doddery, sometimes in a comedic fashion, but never angry or disturbed. The character of Cissy, played by Pauline Collins is given a little more scrutiny. She’s clearly living with dementia. At the film’s opening Reg and Wilf discuss her condition and agree she’s starting to deteriorate. However, aside from several small incidents, (a fall which leads to a marked decline in her cognisance and a brief lapse in awareness when she tries to “check out” of Beecham House, mistaking it for a cruise ship), it is almost possible to dismiss Cissy’s dementia as an artistic affectation or part of her “ditzy” personality. I didn’t find the depiction particularly believable although I thoroughly enjoyed her character and could see Hoffman was using this aspect of her character as a device to aid the plot and the comedy.

Quartet is a thoroughly delightful film. It celebrates and champions older people and also highlights the importance of friendship and community. I’m not sure it’s the most accurate depiction of dementia I’ve ever seen but it left me thinking it was heartening to see a character with dementia being allowed to perform and show that she’s still an amazing singer. It’s also lovely to see a depiction of the kind of support networks and community between older people I often come across in the real world. 

Quartet was directed by Dustin Hoffman and released in the UK in January 2013