Categories
Book Reviews

“This is Paradise” by Will Eaves

I am a massive Will Eaves fan. I love the way Eaves puts a sentence together. I love the kindness at the heart of his writing, the wit, the lyricality, the gentle humour. All my Will Eaves books are heavily underlined. They are full of sentences and thoughts I want to return to and unpick further. This is Paradise is no exception. Published in 2012 it’s a kind of family saga, following the Alldens who live in suburban Bath. We meet them first when their four children are still living at home. The children flutter round the edges of their parents’ oftentimes complex marriage offering the reader insight into their father, Don and their mother, Emily. The family is noisy and chaotic -easily recognisable- but not without its fair share of problems. Don has a philanderer’s eye. Emily, a tendency towards martyring herself.

The novel is a game in two halves. In the second half the four Allden children are grown up, though troubled Clive, is still struggling to sever the links with home. They return to be with their mother in her final days. Emily is dying in a residential care facility. She has dementia and no longer recognises any of her family members. As they spend a few days around her bedside and come together for the funeral service both the cracks and the bonds in the Allden family begin to make their presence known. It is a very familiar story: a family revealing both their best and worst sides when placed under pressure. Eaves captures each small snapshot of Emily’s death with grace and searing honesty.

There are only a few sections of this novel which specifically focus on dementia. However, those that do are particularly well-written and really begin to interrogate issues around residential care. Much is made of the pressure the care staff are under. They’re understaffed, under-supported and under-trained. And yet, Eaves takes great pains to repeatedly show us how kind and compassionate they are in their dealings with both Emily and her grieving family. His portrait of a British care facility with its smells, its sounds and its ever-changing roster of residents is so accurately written I could picture every detail of Emily’s experience. I also felt Eaves does a wonderful job of recording the nuanced reactions of each family member: they all respond differently to Emily’s illness and subsequent death. From her husband who infantilises her and finds a new girlfriend while she’s still alive, to her brother who continually tries to draw attention back to himself, to Clive whose grief is bottomless and Liz, who brings her own nursing experience to the table and is consequently quite pragmatic in the way she deals with her mother’s condition. These are believable portraits of real people reacting within the spectrum of their own emotional capability. As with all of Eaves’ writing, the characterisation is nuanced, realistic and beautifully developed. I could’ve read another 300 pages quite easily.

This is Paradise was published by Picador in 2012 

Categories
Films

The Savages

The Savages is a 2007 black comedy set on the East Coast of the USA. It stars Laura Linney, the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco and was directed by Tamara Jenkins. Linney and Seymour Hoffman play brother and sister Jon and Wendy Savage. It’s fair to say, they’re both already struggling a little when they receive a call to tell them their father, Lenny, who’s living with his girlfriend in Florida has developed dementia. When the girlfriend passes away, Jon and Wendy suddenly become carers for their dad. They are not particularly close to their father. Neither has happy childhood memories from the period after their mother abandoned them. Caring doesn’t come naturally, but they’re determined to help their dad as much as they can.

Jon finds a place for Lenny in a residential care facility close to his home in Buffalo. There’s a heart-breaking scene where Wendy accompanies a confused and increasingly distressed Lenny through the airport and on to the plane as he relocates to the East Coast. Much is made of the fact that he doesn’t even own a winter coat. The Savages chooses to fix its gaze on Lenny’s children, rather than his experience of dementia and residential care. However, there are a number of truly poignant scenes where Lenny reacts to a memory test and is asked to help plan his own funeral arrangements which I found uncomfortable viewing though very recognisable. The film’s main focus seems to be an in-depth exploration of what it feels like to find yourself suddenly a carer for a parent who’s developed dementia.

Seymour Hoffman and Linney are fantastic, as you can imagine, playing a pair of dysfunctional creatives who were already struggling to embrace adulthood and are now navigating an increasingly complex set of responsibilities. There’s not much comedy in this black comedy and it is, at time, a difficult watch. However, I found it incredibly honest and it raises some very important questions about the nature of duty when it comes to care. I also found a few moments where Jenkins allows hope to bubble to the surface and in the last ten minutes of the movie there’s reason to believe the Savage siblings have been positively changed by their experience as carers. I’d recommend this film. It’s so well-written and perfectly acted. It left me with a lot to think about.

The Savages was directed by Tamara Jenkins and released in the UK in 2008 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Wilderness” by Samantha Harvey

I’m going to be honest from the get go, The Wilderness was one of the first fictional dementia narratives I read and it remains one of my favourites. This was my third re-read and Samantha Harvey’s precise and evocative prose actually improves with each subsequent read. There’s a lot going on in this novel. It centres around Jake. Jake has Alzheimer’s. Jake is piecing his life together to make a timeline for his memory doctor. As he tries to order the events of the last seventy odd years his ability to maintain the facades he’s built up begins to slip. Jake is a man who’s constructed his sense of self out of evasions and deceptions. As the novel progresses and his dementia develops he finds it harder and harder to recall the truth of who he is, what he’s done and how his life has played out. Jake’s sense of self gradually unravels as Harvey deftly paints a picture of an old man who is more easy to empathise with in his vulnerability and confusion than he has been at any other point in his life. 

A cast of women hover around the edges of Jake’s story. His wife, Helen. Joy, the woman he slept with in the early days of his marriage. Eleanor, who has always loved him and now finds herself Jake’s carer, at the end of his life, when he can no longer remember who she is. His mother, Sarah whose presence overshadows his entire existence, colouring his perception of everything. And his young daughter, Alice who died as a child yet reappears to him in adult form as the dementia begins to take hold. All their stories swirl around the novel, repeating, intertwining and fracturing. The reader is offered multiple perspectives and interpretations of the same events and incidents. It’s confusing and at times frustrating. It’s exactly as I imagine an experience of dementia might be and this is why I continually return to The Wilderness as an example of what a dementia narrative could and should be. It’s all consuming. It’s experiential. It drew me in and felt almost like a journey through an actual wilderness and yet it’s also shot through with moments of precise clarity, of incredible beauty and profound pathos. It is, in short, a marvellous book.

The Wilderness was published by Vintage in 2009 

Categories
Book Reviews

“Bailegangaire” by Tom Murphy

Mommo is an elderly Irish woman living with dementia, although Tom Murphy characterises her as senile. This is likely to be a reflection on both when the play is set and when it was written. Mommo lives in a small, rural cottage and is cared for by her granddaughter Mary, who is a trained nurse. Mary is fed up with her isolated lifestyle. She has little company except for Mommo who repeats the same story every night. Every so often Mary and Mommo are visited by Mary’s sister Dolly, who’s also trapped in the life she’s created for herself. As the play opens we find all three women on the cusp of a new kind of existence.

Dolly is pregnant and trying to convince her sister to pass the baby off as her own. Dolly’s husband is working in England long term and she’s having another man’s child. If she can convince Mary to take responsibility for the baby before her husband returns at Christmas, he’ll be none the wiser about her affairs. Mary is hoping to leave her caring responsibilities behind. She’s looking forward to starting out again, independently, away from home. She’s convinced that if she can get Mommo to finally finish telling her story of a laughing competition -set in the town of Bailengangaire (‘the town without laughter’)- she’ll be free of her past and able to make a fresh start elsewhere.

Murphy’s characterisation of Mommo is incredibly rich. The language and dialogue employed in her repeated story is particularly distinctive and it’s refreshing to see such a believable and captivating portrayal of a working class, rural Irish woman. The dialogue and repetitive linguistic tics are worth reading for alone. I also really appreciated the way Murphy explores the weight and responsibility of caring for an elderly relative in a rural place. Mary’s experience feels both claustrophobic and isolating and, although it would have negative implications for Mommo, it’s hard not to root for her escape. Finally, I loved the humour in this play. All three women banter off each other. Mary and Dolly even use the tics in their grandmother’s language to gently take the piss out of her. They can be harsh enough in how they speak to each other and yet there’s a raw kind of fondness permeating their relationship. I’d love a chance to see this play performed.

Bailegangaire was published by Methuen in 2001. 

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