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
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
Book Reviews

“When the Music Stops” by Joe Heap

When the Music Stops is a perfectly pleasant if somewhat predictable wee novel. We meet Ella at seven different points in her life, from a childhood in working class Glasgow, through WW2 to the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in 60s era London and a, (slightly baffling), late career move to nursing. Throughout her turbulent life three things about Ella remain constant: her love of music, particularly the guitar, her complicated love affair with Robert and the fact that people seem to die around her with worrying frequency. I’m not going to say too much about the premise of this novel. It’s not the kind of book I would usually read. I found it quite contrived and a little thin, but I can also see why readers might enjoy it as a piece of escapism. 

Each of the seven chapters from Ella’s life are framed by short sections from her final days as an elderly women. Ella is living with dementia. We know this because on several occasions she tells us she’s living with dementia. She is eighty seven years old and trapped on a boat lost at sea with her infant grandson. The incidents which led up to this scenario are never quite explained but an elderly woman with dementia, adrift at sea acts as a handy plot device through which the author draws all the various themes at play in Ella’s life together. One by one seven dead people join Ella on the boat offering her advice and practical assistance in helping her to get the baby to safety. It’s made quite clear that these people are all figments of her imagination and yet the reality is she is still able to hoist a main sail, lower lifeboats, find and fire flare guns and all sorts of things which I found completely implausible given the fact that great pains are taken to remind us just how much her memory and capability have been diminished.

I’ve raised the question of dementia as a plot device a number of times in these book reviews. I completely understand that the nature of fiction means that characters often exist primarily to serve the story’s plot. However, I do think that when it comes to using a character with dementia to advance a plot or create dramatic tension, the writer should endeavour to ensure the depiction is well-researched, fully-formed and accurate. I didn’t find the character of Ella as depicted in the “dementia” sections of this novel at all believable. She is confused, forgetful and frail when it suits the plot and at other times uncharacteristically competent. When the Music Stops is a light, fun read and as such is quite enjoyable but I don’t think it stands up as a dementia narrative.

When the Music Stops was published by Harper Collins in 2020 

Categories
Book Reviews

“Happiness” by Aminatta Forna

Happiness is definitely a London novel. The city is as much a character in the book as the two main protagonists around whom the plot resolves. Attila is a recently widowed, Ghanaian psychiatrist, visiting London to present a paper about trauma at an academic conference. Jean is a recently divorced American who is spending some time in London whilst conducting an extended study into urban foxes. The two, quite literally, bump into each other whilst crossing Waterloo Bridge and strike up a friendship which eventually becomes a relationship. As the novel progresses Jean helps Atilla search for his niece’s missing son, mobilising the network of volunteer fox-spotters she’s developed across inner city London. The people who populate this novel, like the foxes Jean tracks and the traumatised individuals Atilla has worked with in the wake of various conflicts, exist on the margins of society and yet are very much interdependent and reliant upon each other for survival. Forna is asking her readers to consider questions around co-existence and community.

Whilst in London Atilla also takes every opportunity to visit his former lover and lifelong research partner, Rosie who is living in a residential care facility. Rosie has developed early onset dementia and is increasingly incapable of recognising Atilla when he visits though she retains some motor memory of their physicality. Atilla is determined to find better care arrangements for Rosie. He’s concerned that the nursing home staff aren’t being as vigilant with her care as they could be. In Atilla’s absence, Emmanuel -the carer whom Rosie had been particularly close to- has been fired and she’s been unable to bond with anyone else. Atilla’s particularly concerned about Rosie’s loss of appetite and disinterest. She isn’t receiving much stimuli or attention in the home. He conspires to set her up in her own apartment where he will pay Emmanuel to be a live-in carer. This plan never comes to fruition as Rosie’s condition deteriorates quickly and she eventually dies. Forna’s depiction of dementia only takes up a small amount of the novel but it’s significant for its portrayal of how care staff are treated and the pressures they face within a residential care setting. On the whole it’s an accurate depiction of dementia : Rosie exhibits ongoing confusion, an inability to tend to her own physical needs and, by the novel’s conclusion has become occasionally violent. Forna intersperses these darker snapshots of the dementia experience with moments of genuine fondness and even levity between Atilla, Rosie and Emmanuel.

I thoroughly enjoyed Happiness. The metaphor of the fox community which runs throughout the novel exists as a perfectly drawn exploration of interdependence between all the living beings who call London home. These complex ideas of community, connection and dependence also exist in the care setting which Forna gives us a glimpse into

Happiness was published by Bloomsbury in 2018 

Categories
Book Reviews

“The Imposter” by Anna Wharton

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-publication proof copy of Anna Wharton’s first novel, The Imposter which is due for release in early 2021. Anna has been a journalist, writer and ghost writer for many, many years and most notably worked alongside Wendy Mitchell on her bestselling memoir about her life with early onset Alzheimer’s, Somebody I Used to Know. It’s easy to see how the time spent working on this amazing non-fiction book impacted Wharton’s first novel. Dementia is a key theme running through The Imposter and the description of both the illness and Grace, who is living with Alzheimer’s are both incredibly accurate and deftly written.

I want to be careful not to give away too many spoilers when describing The Imposter. Suffice to say if you enjoy a well-written thriller with twists and turns and surprises along the way. You’re going to really enjoy this novel. The main protagonist Chloe is an almost reclusive young woman who works as an archivist in a local newspaper by day and spends all her spare time caring for her Nan who has recently been diagnosed with Dementia. Chloe’s life changes really quickly when her Nan’s condition begins to decline so rapidly she’s forced to move the older lady into a residential care facility. As Chloe faces this huge life change she also becomes obsessed with a decades old, missing child case she discovers in the archives at work. Chloe begins to lose touch with her Nan as she becomes more and more entangled in the lives of the missing child’s parents who have never given up hope that their daughter might someday come home.

I’m not going to say too much about the missing child storyline in The Imposter except to say it had me hooked from the start and still on tenterhooks four hundred pages later. Wharton is a brilliant storyteller with a gift for building up tension and introducing believable twists in her plotlines. As a Dementia narrative I also found The Imposter very convincing. It includes so many familiar tropes I’ve come to associate with Alzheimer’s: wandering, confusing times and not recognising family members, forgetting when and what is appropriate to eat. Anyone who’s spent time with a family member or loved one living with Alzheimer’s will recognise both Grace’s behaviour patterns and the ways in which Chloe attempts to protect and reassure her Nan. There’s a scene near the start where Chloe is forced to buy yet another identical electric kettle to replace the ones her Nan has melted on the hob, which I’ve experienced personally with family members who have Dementia. Wharton’s depiction of Chloe is also spot on. Chloe both resents and relies upon the support of the care facility and social worker and Wharton does a wonderful job of capturing her frustration. It’s abundantly clear that Wharton has done a huge amount of research into Dementia and as a result Grace is one of the more believable and accurate of the characters I’ve encountered in my reading so far.

I was also incredibly relieved to find that Dementia has not been reduced now to a plot device in The Imposter. The storyline which explores Grace and Chloe’s relationship runs parallel to the more thriller-like storyline in the novel and exists as a wonderful piece of character development, allowing us to get an insight into who Chloe is and how her relationship with her Nan has developed. I really enjoyed this novel. It was great to see a character with Dementia included in such a well-developed way in a novel which is not primarily about Dementia. I’m looking forward to reading more of Anna Wharton’s work.

The Imposter was published by Mantle Books in 2021 

Categories
Book Reviews

“Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

Joanna Cannon’s second novel Three Things About Elsie is set in a home for the elderly. The book takes place across a single evening just after 84 year old Florence has taken a tumble. For the duration of the novel, she’s lying on the floor of her flat waiting to see if anyone’s going to come and offer her help. As her mind skips backwards and forwards between her early life and the more recent events which have brought her to this place, the reader goes on a journey with Florence, piecing together a very old mystery. Florence is clearly living with dementia. She’s frequently confused and often forgetful. There’s a wonderful scene where a cleaner opens her kitchen cupboard to reveal she’s been inadvertently stockpiling Battenberg cake.

Florence is troubled by the sudden appearance of a new resident in the old people’s home. Though this man claims to be someone else, she’s absolutely convinced he’s a man she knew when she was a girl. A man she’s incredibly afraid of. A man whom she thought died fifty years ago. Florence begins her own investigation though it’s increasingly hard for her to keep track of what’s true and what’s not. She’s ably assisted by her friends Jack and Elsie though by the novel’s conclusion we realise Elsie is not exactly what she seems. None of the staff in the older people’s home take Florence’s concerns seriously. She’s frequently dismissed, often ignored and lives in constant fear of being sent to live in a specialist dementia care facility. 

Three Things About Elsie is very similar to Elizabeth is Missing in tone, theme and approach. It’s part of the increasingly large canon of fiction using dementia as a trope within crime fiction and thrillers. It’s a pleasant enough read if somewhat unsurprising. You’ll spot the big twist coming from quite early on. At times it feels like the symptoms of Florence’s dementia fit all too neatly around the plot. She’s confused when the plot requires a little ambiguity and at other times crystal clear and more insightful than many of the other characters. Without giving away too many spoilers I think Cannon effectively handles the conceit of having Florence imagine people who aren’t really there. The reader gets to see both sides of the conversation. The other characters only hear what Florence says. I also enjoyed the aspects dealing with how the care staff perceived their roles and felt the ongoing issue of older people being dismissed and infantilised was handled very well in this novel. It’s not the best dementia narrative I’ve ever read but it is an enjoyable read and you’ll not regret spending time with the characters.

Three Things About Elsie was published by Borough Press in 2018 

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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