Away From Her: a film about love, not just Alzheimer’s

February 1, 2008 by  
Filed under ALZHEIMER'S

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I haven’t seen the critically-acclaimed film Away From Her, but it fascinates me. The Alzheimer’s Association promotes it (it promotes the Alzheimer’s Association), and it’s available on DVD. Based on “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a short story by acclaimed novelist Alice Munro, it may earn Julie Christie a second Oscar. Director and screenwriter Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress, was also nominated for an Academy Award, for Best Adapted Screenplay. Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis put in fine performances too. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 95, which is high for them (122 fresh tomatoes, only 7 rotten ones).

In Away From Her, a couple is separated for the first time in fifty years when she enters a nursing home with a 30-day “no-visitors” policy (do Alzheimer’s facilities really have such rules?) after wandering away and being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In those thirty days, she develops a relationship with another man, and her husband has to choose how to respond.

One Alzheimer’s relative calls the film’s depiction of the disease “sanitized” (as usual) and another one points out that Alzheimer’s usually progresses more slowly than the film suggests. But it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. It seems to promote respect for people who have the disease.

It would be simpler for loved ones if an Alzheimer’s diagnosis was an execution, not a death sentence. But the person with Alzheimer’s is still there. Family members sometimes say that the person they knew is disappearing before their eyes, but I don’t think the person ever disappears completely. Olympia Dukakis reports that after two years of not knowing who she was, one day her mother said, “Oh, Olympia, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Away From Her shows a woman who still remembers her husband’s unfaithfulness, as well as his faithfulness to her. Sometimes people with Alzheimer’s do imagine that other people are their spouses. I wonder if that’s what happens in the film. Hard as it is for her husband to accept, is it her affection for her husband that powers her affection for another man?

The film explores issues that could involve us all. Dementia can have other causes besides Alzheimer’s, but according to the Alzheimer’s Association:

Currently there are as many as 5 million people with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, experts predict that there may be as many as 16 million – more people than the populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined. By 2030, Medicare spending on those with Alzheimer’s alone may cost nearly $400 billion – roughly equivalent to today’s entire Medicare budget. Alzheimer’s could bankrupt the system and become the healthcare crisis of the 21st century.

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