Finally, Old Age, Dementia, Terminal Illness and Love at the Autumn of life are being portrayed in the movies. Movies are important agents of social change influencing public perceptions. Seeing our movie stars portray the trials and tribulations, but also love, romance, adventure and camaraderie, and yes, even sex in the late years of life is a relatively new and important development in our culture.
“My John is charming, educated! You stole him from me and I want him back, give him back!” says the character played by Helen Mirren to her husband who suffers from memory loss in the movie “The Leisure Seeker”. “Whoever stole him from you stole him from me, too” responds the aging handsome Donald Sutherland, who plays the husband.
Sure, the portrayal of the aging couple, she who is dying of cancer and he, who suffers from progressive memory loss, is much beautified and softened in this movie in comparison with the reality known to anyone who has had to deal with the truly grueling experience of caring for a parent or husband who is gradually disappearing into dementia, and to anyone who has had to endure or observe the ordeal of cancer patients. The movie can be criticized (and it was) for multiple instances which would have ended much more tragically in real life than they do in the script. For example, when the wife collapses during a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s home, while her husband is in a different part of the place, he and no other is the one who happens upon her purse which was forgotten by the EMT’s and so, with presence of mind, he finds out where his wife was taken. We gather from a conversation between the grown son and his sister that nothing his father said made sense to him during entire afternoons spent together, and we get a glimpse of the differences between the siblings in the way they cope with a parent’s decline. And, of course, Donald Sutherland, even as an old man suffering from dementia, never becomes just simply ornery, and Helen Mirren, suffering from terminal cancer in its late phase, is only momentarily sick while generally maintaining her cheerfulness throughout the final adventurous journey the couple embarked upon. Yet criticizing the unrealistic aspects of the movie, while somewhat justified, does not take away from the fact that finally, the reality of the later phases of life are beginning to be represented in cinematography. The individual challenges of illness and dementia, of couple-hood and of late love at the edge of the life cycle are finally finding some expression in such movies as “Still Alice”, “Requiem”, and the European “Amore”.
Both “Amore” and “The Leisure Seeker” address the desperation that accompanies the inevitable diminishing of one of the spouses and the prospect of staying alone or leaving the other alone at the most vulnerable time in life. I am just happy these issues have become part of the discourse and part of the social awareness to the issues faced by the elderly in our society.