Of all couple separations the separation due to dementia can be the most painful. Major illnesses in a partner, a child are also difficult to live through. It is the erasing of the partner and his/her annihilation that is unbearably painful in dementia.
I have avoided writing about Away From Her (AFH). I also avoided showing and discussing it in film groups. Of course this was due to the fear of equating old age with dementia – covering the fear of the illness itself. When I saw this film at the BFI I came out surprised. Surprised that at the beginning of the illness it is possible early on to make decisions for oneself and that care homes can be compassionate. Now that I am at the beginning of the illness and able to think for myself I appreciate the film. If we consider the importance of feature films on culture, I believe that it is as crucial to represent the variety of dementias and their progress rather than just the end game as advocated by Davis. Alas there is such a condition as early onset dementia and it is a genetic condition. Davis criticises the film Still Alice for choosing a young linguistic professor to sugar the pill so to speak. In Still Alice the separation of the couple is cruel. The couple are in their 50s, the husband has a career ahead of him and he chooses to leave his wife and accept a post away.
My personal experience of dementia and relationships has been first and foremost the fear of the illness. I lived in a country away from my father and saw him rarely. A proud man, he never expressed weakness and it was when he had to be admitted into an Alzheimer home that I realised the situation. My visit was short. He had changed from an extremely powerful man to a compliant friendly person who seemed to live in his world of business and who mistook any woman around for my mother….
When a friend of mine was diagnosed I stopped seeing her for a time and when I did, it was in the presence of her husband and she was already silent.
In AFH we have a woman who decides that she does not wish on her husband the heartache of the last stages of not being recognised and decides to enter a care home. The rule of the home to leave a month between the patient’s admission and the first visit of the relative seems arbitrary but is a film device to explain the behaviour of the dementing wife who does not recognise her husband any more and cares for a man who does not speak. The pain of the unrecognised husband is well portrayed in this film. It does not require much imagination to feel the anguish experienced when day after day one is ignored by the person you lived with for years…. It does not need a horror film…to imagine the hurt, the pain of a person who is ignored, unrecognised by the companion of a lifetime.
Viewed Relic last night. I realise that my feelings about it cannot be taken without considering my state. I was fascinated and horrified throughout but I found it impossible to square it with my experience of people with Alzheimer’s and their relatives. I saw it as a horror film and I had no way of identifying with any of the three women. How could I ?