“I think I may be beginning to disappear”
“The thing is, half the time I wander around looking for something which I know is very pertinent. I can’t remember what it is.”
A beautifully quiet and touching portrayal of a husband coming to terms with his wife’s progressing Alzheimer’s. A very realistic depiction of the disease without exaggeration or unnecessary twists and turns. It is a uniquely intimate film experience – watching Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) struggle with her condition feels as if we were getting an inside look at an actual couple’s hardships.
They had been together for 44 years when the first signs of Fiona’s forgetting appeared. It begins with the little things; misplacing items such as putting the empty saucepan in the freezer or struggling to find the word for wine while holding the bottle. Later on, she gets lost in their neighbourhood and cannot seem to grasp the essence of certain questions. We observe signs of inhibitions crumbling as she notes “What an ugly baby” in front of a child’s mother. As Fiona’s Alzheimer’s progresses, she feels it is better for both of them if she is admitted to a care home.
“I am not all gone Grant… just going.”
The film portrays beautiful moments of love, devotion, self-sacrifice in caring for one another – in spite of all the hardships and pain of both past and present.
The movie includes a couple of excerpts from a book about Alzheimer’s, thus contextualising Christie’s wonderful acting by providing background information on the disease and what is about to come; both in real life and later in the film.
“Throughout much of the thinking brain gooey plaques now crowd neurons from outside the cell membranes. And knotty tangles mangle microtubal transports from inside the cells. All told, tens of millions of synapses dissolve away. Because the structures and substructures of the brain are so highly specialized the precise location of the neuronal loss determines what specific abilities will become impaired. It is like a series of circuit breakers in a large house, flipping off one-by-one.”
The importance of finding someone else going through the same thing to help one cope is thoughtfully included in the storyline. Grant meets Marian (Olympia Dukakis) and their exchanges may be some of the most insightful ones on what it is like to be caring for their spouses. This bond allows both of them to feel less isolated and alone in this new chapter of their lives.
The role of the professionals supporting residents in care homes is also accentuated; an empathetic and approachable nurse or carer can be of tremendous help to understand and prepare for what comes with the disease. Due to their experience and knowledge, family members rely on their opinions and judgement, making them powerful agents in providing support not only to the residents but also their loved ones.
Sprinkled with humour
As difficult and hopeless the disease and its progression is, humour has an important role in alleviating the overwhelm. The film operates with this in a sweet and subtle manner without making fun of those suffering from Alzheimer’s or taking the topic lightly. Fiona herself makes jokes about her condition several times throughout the movie. Once this happens as she is reading a segment of the aforementioned book about Alzheimer’s:
“The caregiver must preside over the degeneration of someone he or she loves very much, must do this for years and years with the news always getting worse, not better, must put up sometimes with deranged but at the same time very personal insults and must somehow learn to smile through it all. Imagine the person you love the most, suddenly upset about something but completely unable to communicate the problem or understand it himself.” At this point Fiona looks up, smiling, and says to her husband: “Sounds like a regular marriage.”
In one of the most devastating scenes, Grant visits Fiona in the Meadowlake home for the first time and she doesn’t seem to recognize him. He also has to face the fact that Fiona transferred their close and caring relationship to one of the other residents at the home; spending all her time taking care of him and playing games together while remaining oblivious to her husband’s identity and ignoring him during his visits.
Coming to terms with the fact that there is no cure or chance of real improvement is the most devastating truth of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Albeit there is a steady decline, it may happen quite sporadically and at a very different pace depending on the individual. Fiona’s clarity in the final scene is a gleam of hope; not hope of her getting better and coming back for good, but hope that she is still not all gone… just going.