Dementia in Modern Media

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Dementia in Modern Media

(Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

(Julia Comerford/The Fordham Ram)

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By Dylan Balsamo

 

Some of the most important and formulating experiences in my upbringing were watching my parents go through losing their parents. Their strength as individuals during the worst times in their lives helped shape who I am today.

In January of 2015, my maternal grandmother, Doris Lane, passed away at the age of 76, having been diagnosed with dementia a little more than a year earlier. My mother, the youngest of her mom’s three daughters, a nurse practitioner and the medical professional of our family, had been my grandma’s primary caregiver, going with her to her doctor’s appointments, visiting her more and more often and even having her live with us before spending her last few months at the Oakland Care Center in New Jersey.

Dementia is the worst. A few months before my grandmother’s passing, one of my personal inspirations, Robin Williams, had committed suicide and was found after his death to have what we now know was Lewy Body Dementia. But it was during the process of my grandma’s diagnosis and decline that I was able to watch my mom and get a true understanding of the strength it takes to go through the agony and heartbreak of being the caregiver of a dementia patient.

All of this had me thinking: how is the role of a dementia caregiver portrayed in media? When going about answering this question, I found myself looking to what I think is our most powerful form of media: film. It is easy to derive our understanding of different things through what we see on the big screen. That being said, I think it is very important we examine cinema through lenses such as this one to see if we are getting the real story.

Here’s a movie that got it wrong: 2014’s “Still Alice.”

This is an example of a film that portrays the conditions of the patient very well, having been told from her perspective. Alice, played by Julianne Moore, is a middle-aged author and professor with a husband and three beautiful children who all of a sudden goes from occasional forgetfulness to wetting her pants because she forgot where the bathroom was and is eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. The piece shows the deterioration of its protagonist in the best way that a two-hour flick can and shows that it can happen to any person well before they hit what are supposed to be their golden years.

However, “Still Alice” hardly touches upon the effect that this condition has on Alice’s family, if at all. The children become essentially unimportant to the plot, and the viewer does not get to see very much of the impact Alice’s disease has on her husband, her primary caregiver. My mother essentially took on a second job continuously having to visit her mom, who was divorced and living alone before she came to live with us for a while. I am thankful every day that my mom is in medicine.

Here’s a movie that got it right: 2001’s “A Song for Martin.”

This Swedish film centers on an elderly couple: the husband, Martin, a composer and the wife, Barbara, a violinist, that faces issues when Martin becomes stricken with Alzheimer’s. What it is that this movie does hit perfectly is the unpredictability in both what Martin does and how Barbara reacts. In one scene, Barbara is bringing Martin’s newest score to the post office when she opens it and finds it a mess with blank pages and arranges to have a pretend concert performed. Another scene shows Martin smashing Barbara’s violin and her becoming so mad that she hits him.

It is impossible to stay consistently sane and accommodating for a dementia patient during the process of watching them fall apart and living your entire life around it. There were days when my mom would be able to find humor in some of the strange and outrageous things she would hear her mom say. There were also days where she was so heartbroken that she did not want to talk to any of us. “A Song for Martin” tells the caregiver story in a way “Still Alice” does not.

The deterioration of my grandmother through dementia and the agony my family experienced because of it are things that I wish could never happen to anyone again, but if we have cannot make that happen, the least we can do is give caregivers a story to identify with.

The strength and courage that my mom had during this time was unimaginable, so much so that I had to go to college and write in a newspaper to express how much I admire her for it. So for her sake, and for the sake of caregivers and all of the world, let’s get the story right.