Louis Theroux’s documentary is set in Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, a major hub of dementia care. We follow Louis as he meets with husbands and wives, daughters and sons and those they care for; their loved ones struggling with dementia. Louis has a particular approach to every documentary he makes; sensitive and empathetic, but curious and unafraid to ask painful questions or explore taboos. He doesn’t shy away from getting involved; from asking the potentially inappropriate questions to becoming a carer for a day. He does it all in a genuine and open manner without a plan to prove a point or further any agenda. Hence the film is heartwarming and humorous at times and heartbreaking at others. Everyday people in front of the lens with painful but all too common stories portraying how dementia changes the life of the individual and of everyone else around them.
Becoming your mom’s mom
Janet is a brand new resident at the Beatitudes Senior Living Campus. Her daughter Nancy explains that her decision to move her in here was ultimately due to the feeling that she couldn’t keep her safe anymore. Nancy lost her status as a daughter and became a parent to her own mom. This shift in the relationship dynamics made her feel very conflicted and uneasy. The new living arrangement restored the balance they had previously; her mom has her own residence where she knows her to be safe and she can come visit her anytime. However, Janet seems to be unaware that Beatitudes is her permanent home. The manager of the unit, Dawn Grant, adds that many residents believe they are leaving soon or that they are only staying here temporarily. This misunderstanding (and other similar ones) is purposefully not contradicted by the staff. According to them, constantly re-addressing and contradicting delusions and misbeliefs puts unnecessary strain on the residents, and it’s confusing for them rather than helpful. Instead, they let them have their own interpretation and understanding of their situation and events, redirecting them when necessary.
“Isn’t this lying to them?” – Louis
“We tell white lies all day long here. All day long.” – Dawn
When you’re no longer his wife
Garry is another one of the residents at Beatitudes under the impression he is leaving soon. He believes he is working at the facility as a dentist. The carers often utilize his conviction; if he becomes agitated or confused why he is in the home, they only have to ask him to take a look at their teeth to redirect his focus and put him at ease. Garry finds his place and purpose again taking his job very seriously, giving dental care advice and examining teeth at the home. When Garry’s wife, Carla, comes to visit him, it becomes apparent that Garry no longer recognizes her as his wife, but thinks of her as some sort of business associate or buddy of his. He has two ‘lady friends’ on his floor, occupying Carla’s place as romantic partner. If Carla’s suspicions are correct, he even gets physically involved with them – living his life as a popular bachelor at the Beatitudes. On rare occasions, clarity comes and for a few minutes it’s apparent that Garry sees Carla for who she really is, but minutes later her real identity is lost again in his oblivion.
“…the residents exist in a twilight world of half remembered reality…”
Till death do us part
Nancy and John live together in their own home. Nancy is akin to a charmingly cheeky toddler who gets tired easily but has a sweet and friendly personality that’s hard not to adore.
“You like me?” – Nancy
“Well, more than that! Much more than that.” – John
“Oh boy… Sex?!” – Nancy
When asked why he doesn’t move Nancy into a care home, John has a twofold reasoning. Firstly, he talks about his strong conviction of having made a promise sixty-something years ago for better or for worse, and secondly, he also mentions the extremely high cost of care homes, which he couldn’t afford even if he wanted to.
“How much of Nancy is still here?” – Louis
“Thirty percent” – John
Being a carer 24/7 without any help is a burden one cannot imagine, only experience. Therefore, John prompts Louis to take over caring for Nancy for one day. During these 24 hours Louis encounters many of the unfiltered, loving and innocent moments that accompany the “second childhood” Nancy is regressing into – making all the difficulties and hardships worthwhile according to John.
Raising your young child, caring for your young wife
Selinda and Glen are in a rare but all the more tragic situation. Selinda has early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 49 and the couple has a 9-year-old daughter. At first glance, Selinda doesn’t present any obvious symptoms of the disease. However, when requested to perform otherwise simple, everyday tasks she seems to be unable to complete the course of action needed to do so. In addition, she appears to be unaware of the extent of her difficulties, and is resistant to accept the seriousness of the problem, which only becomes fully apparent through Glen’s account. Raising a daughter, while gradually becoming a carer for his wife, Glen’s situation is agonizing. He has to come to terms with contemplating what the next step of their journey will be, knowing he will have to prioritize the well-being and happiness of their daughter, and potentially move on before Selinda is gone.
Intertwined stories of parallel lives
„I saw that those who seem to suffer most from the disease are often those left in the position of carers”
Louis approaches the topic of dementia with openness and genuine curiosity towards his subjects. The documentary gives a very human view of the hardships and painful decisions that families have to deal with, while allowing a glimpse into some of the delightful moments that would have perhaps never manifested otherwise. The stories of these families make up a multi-dimensional portrait of dementia; the changing dynamics of daily life, of relating to one another, and the various ways people choose to prepare for and cope with the course the disease is inevitably going to take.