One of the best ways to get a better understanding about Alzheimer’s disease is to go to the movies (or in the case of those – like me – who live in a small town, add specific movies to your Netflix queue. The latest that I’d recommend is “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep. The movie just recently came out on video.
Streep won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Margaret Thatcher. And I have to give Street kudos not only for her accurate portrayal of the former British prime minister, but also for giving the audience a credible example of someone who is in early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
Interestingly, there are some who aren’t pleased with the movie’s viewpoint. “Some former Thatcher allies have expressed outrage over scenes in which Thatcher suffers from the delusion she's still Prime Minister. In one, directing staff to release a statement of condolence after a terrorist bombing,” NPR critic David Edelstein wrote. “But I think those scenes make her look more admirable than pathetic. So much else is gone, yet Thatcher's sense of civic duty is undimmed.”
That scene that Edelstein describes rings true of what happens to someone with Alzheimer’s based on my own experiences with my mother. In Mom’s case, the trait exhibited was her tendency to take charge. I was made aware of this situation when I was stopped by the activity director as I was leaving the nursing home after a visit.
“Dorian, what did your mother do earlier in her life?” the activity director asked. “Well, professionally, she was first a high school teacher – I believe it was either English or history,” I replied. “Oh, that makes sense,” the activity director commented. “When she gets mad, she gives you ‘The Look’ that those types of teachers learn to keep students in line.”
I laughed, but then realized that that was Mom’s initial profession and she had only taught for a few years. I explained to the activity director that most of Mom’s professional life was spent in merchandising, including more than 20 years owning a small business with my father and managing one of the stores. “Oh, now that totally makes sense,” the activity director replied. She described how Mom used to maneuver her wheelchair over to the activity director’s office in order to “supervise” her work. If the activity director didn’t do as Mom requested, Mom replied, “You’re fired!”
That wasn’t the only time during the film where I saw similarities between what Mom experienced and what Streep (and the screenwriters and director) portrayed. For instance, Streep accurately conveyed the sense that something is not quite right in her actions that are set during the present time. As a viewer, you’re initially left trying to puzzle what's going on. Finally, you start realizing that something’s amiss. That’s confirmed when you realize that Thatcher’s husband (played by Jim Broadbent) – who appears in many of these scenes – is actually a figment of her imagination and that he in reality has died several years before. We saw something similar happening with Mom when she started seeing her long-deceased parents or thought she was at an airport when she was actually sitting next to the nurse’s station at the nursing home.