This Is What 70 Looks Like: “Why Hollywood Can’t Get It Right”
Still Alice is movieland’s hottest foray into the world of Alzheimer’s.
Given that all of us will come face-to-face with dementia in some form in the next decades, it’s little wonder Hollywood is piling on with films about “lost” loved ones.
Especially women. Statistics point tellingly to a 70 per cent preponderance of Alzheimer’s in women. They also make up more than 70 per cent of caregivers. My only surprise is that those numbers aren’t higher.
Losing your mind while keeping your body will always be an uncomfortable topic.
Indeed, for youth-obsessed cultures like Hollywood, the long, slow decline of your mind is not exactly catnip to audiences looking for a quick dramatic hit.
But when you’re just 50, which Alice was, when she was struck with early onset Alzheimer’s, and when you’re an esteemed university professor, wife and mother who loses her memory, status and connections, it’s especially tragic.
So Hollywood’s rendition of what this looks like can only soften a dire reality with adages of meaningful aging and demise, complete with shining paths and sunsets.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Julianne Moore, particularly her teeth, which I watched a lot in this movie. There was almost too much close-up face time with Julianne, but representing her shuddering memory blanks with an opaque, hazy screen and a puzzled look fails us as viewers. Addressing a precipitous fall-off in the capacity to maintain personal care with plaid shirts and sweats and less neatly combed hair … well, that’s Hollywood.
I’m not saying it hasn’t been done well before.
In 2001, Dame Judith Dench did it in Iris, a movie about the decline and fall of British novelist Iris Murdoch. It was so disturbing that I walked out of the theatre and went 20 blocks before I could stop and collect my thoughts.
And it has been done well in Amour, a 2012 film about two retired music teachers that garnered the Palm D’Or for its two octogenarian actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
Both those movies hit deeply at the personal issues of what it’s like to care for a partner who is losing their memory as they live and breathe. Iris Murdoch’s story so upset the movie critic Roger Ebert that he was on record as hating it because by focusing on her end it wiped out the great achievements in her life.
Both movies tell it from the perspective of the caregiver – both men.
Sadness permeates each frame of these two films, in spite of tender care and the tug to memories past. There is a ceaseless undulating fear and anxiety that hangs over each day. Ultimately, these are portrayals of the brooding and numbing acceptance of fate.
In Canada, this issue is already being tested in the courts.
British Columbia’s Supreme Court has ruled against a similar directive made by an 82-year-old nurse. For years she’s worked in the field of caring for the aging.
So she was clear about her end-of-life wishes if she become mentally incompetent. Her family was aware and agreed with her. But they found themselves unable to persuade the nursing home staff to carry out their mother’s wishes, which was to stop giving her food and water.
The B.C. Court ruled that offering someone food and drink was not in the realm of medical care or a medical directive but, rather, basic humanity. The fact that this woman opened her mouth to take in food even if it was a reflex act, constituted from the court’s perspective her willingness, even her determination, to continue living.
The issues surrounding assisted suicide let alone advanced care directives are now front and centre in Canada and a matter of hot debate.
It shouldn’t be any less. The justice system is conservative by nature; its roots ground our values and protect us as citizens. End-of-life care is something we all need to concern ourselves with because we are going to live into old and older age.
Unlike Alice, our decline will likely be a creep rather than her crash: diagnosis to total dementia in just three years.
And in the same vein, our decline will not likely be a ravaging cancer with agonizing pain.
That is easy or, at least if you have cancer, we can ease the pain – the track is set. If you’re demented, it is a very murky way.