“We are taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us.”
Realistic and Raw
When Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is diagnosed with dementia his children Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have no choice but get involved in his life after many years of silence. It is a conflicting situation to care for an estranged, once abusive parent and the film does not sugarcoat it. What do you do when someone who didn’t care for you in a loving way becomes dependant on you?
The movie opens with an ironically fluffy and syrupy scene of the perfect elderly neighbourhood; grandmothers cheerleading, couples tandem-biking, sunshine and happiness all around. Then Lenny smears his feces on the bathroom wall and the tone of the movie is set. Bosco portrays Lenny in an impeccable performance; as the events unfold around him he is staring blankly and confused interspersed with impatient and aggressive outbursts at times. Although it is Lenny who has dementia, the film’s focus is on Wendy and Jon and how they cope with their new responsibility and reservations about their relationship with their father.
We see the siblings orienting themselves in their novel situation; dressing him, pushing him around in a wheelchair, getting used to his diapers, attending hospital visits and doctor’s appointments, reading up on the topic, researching nursing homes and visiting a dementia support group. Meanwhile, they have to experience painful and embarrassing situations being there for their father. From time-to-time, Lenny confuses his children with doctors or carers or gets upset very easily and becomes aggressive and demanding. Since his inhibitions are melting away, his inappropriate behaviour results in scenes. His memories and imagination are blending; an old movie seems to be bringing his vim back as he becomes more animated, happy and talkative than before. However, as he enthusiastically talks about details of his past it becomes apparent how his reality is infused with fantasy in his recollection of events.
Sensitive and Intelligent
Discomfort and guilt may come with placing a loved one in a care home – as this conflict is perfectly depicted by Wendy’s character and her need to compensate. Still, what one thinks is the best option or a helpful solution may be completely irrelevant to the person they are caring for. As Jon observantly puts it; the elegance and luxury of the fancy care homes is there to comfort the conscience of the family members more than to add to the residents’ quality of life. While one may disagree with his outlook, Valley View, Greenhill Manor and Hill Haven only need first and foremost comfort, cleanliness and quality carers – the things that no one should have to compromise on. All the same, the siblings’ discussion on what type of care to choose for their father also points to a very crucial underlying issue within the elder care ‘industry’, namely how socio-economic differences very much prevail into this stage of life, thus not everyone being entitled to the same end-of-life comfort.
The film also highlights another harsh yet substantial aspect professional care; the bureaucracy surrounding it. Wendy and Jon leave the care manager’s office with a bundle of documents to fill in for the event of their father’s death. It touches on the uncomfortable decision making and potentially painful conversations that have to be had when caring for someone whose condition is not going to get any better, only worse.
Humorous and Human
“Lenny, can you tell me what season we’re in?”
Perhaps the greatest strength of the movie is its humour: it’s a ‘dramedy’, as someone commented. Lenny’s character rarely talks, but when he does it is either extremely uncomfortable or wonderfully amusing or a mix of the two. This concoction of humour and upset is kept in a delicate balance throughout the movie giving it its unique atmosphere.
“Hey, don’t forget to tip the girl on the way out.” – says Lenny believing he is staying in a hotel when his children leave him in the care home for the first night.
Although the siblings are brought closer together by this new situation, their differing views on how to care for their father and other disagreements lead to conflicts between the two of them. One of the most gripping visual metaphors of dementia is depicted when Wendy and Jon are loudly arguing outside and the camera finds Lenny, sitting in the car in silence, listening to the muted quarrel of his children in the background. A beautifully thought out image of the state he is in: still there, but not quite there anymore. Only perceiving the world and understanding it through a filter that blurs all sharp edges as people, voices and visuals fade into the background before they completely disappear.