“Big…red…pillow!” During a poignant moment in the movie The Savages (2007), Laura Linney’s character loses it. She is describing a pillow that has gone missing from her elderly father’s nursing home room. Linney all too accurately portrays the moment when caregivers of elderly loved ones finally fall apart. The guilt, anger, stress, and frustration has bubbled to the surface; in this case alienating the very staff who are caring for her Dad.
Sometimes when working with family members caring for loved ones with permanent dementia like Alzheimer’s disease, I suggest they see three movies released in the past seven years. In addition to The Savages, I recommend The Notebook (2004) and Away From Her (2006). While fictional, I believe these films have the potential to significantly enhance the caregivers’ understanding of dementia and how to best help their loved ones.
The scene described above in The Savages is a classic example of caregiver burnout. Caregivers suffer from more illnesses and premature death than their counterparts not engaged in caregiving. Sometimes when caregivers see themselves in the Laura Linney character, they recognize that they can’t do it all. They will consider taking a step back, taking better care of themselves and asking others for support.
The Notebook’s James Garner reading to his wife demonstrates the excellent use of reminiscing as a way to connect with a loved one whose short term memory is minimal but long term memory is still intact. Viewing these scenes can help reinforce that discussing happy memories from the years gone is a positive way to connect with a person whose mind resides in the past.
In the film Away From Her, Julie Christie plays a wife with dementia who asks her husband to place her in a memory care unit. Certainly a request like that is almost unheard of in real life (this is still fiction, after all). But the portrayal of Julie Christie’s character becoming romantically interested in another patient with dementia is an experience many spouses deal with as part of this disease. These scenes can help caregivers accept the personality changes that frequently accompany dementia.
Obviously I recommend books like The 36 Hour Day, resources from the local Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org), support groups and educational seminars. But to augment that, I find that many caregivers find films such as The Savages, Away From Her and The Notebook can be a gentler way to face the tough reality of dementia.