Oscar Nominee "The Savages" Hits the Mark on Caregiving
The movie, The Savages, is still running through my mind several days after I've attended a screening in Austin. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Philip Bosco, the movie hits the mark many times in depicting the caregiving issues one experiences when dealing with a loved one who is diagnosed with dementia.
Hoffman and Linney respectively are cast as the brother, Jon, and the sister, Wendy, who have lost touch with their father, Lennie, (played by Bosco) as well as with each other. A call comes to Wendy, an unemployed screenwriter in New York City, which announces that Lennie's girlfriend had just died and that Lennie was mentally unstable. Wendy gets in touch with Jon, who lives in Buffalo and is a university faculty member, to arrange to fly to Arizona to see what is going on.
Confronted with the diagnosis of vascular dementia, the grown siblings have to determine next steps for their father as well as how to reestablish a collaborative and cordial relationship with each other during this difficult time.
As the website devoted to The Savages notes, "Faced with complete upheaval and battling over how to handle their father's final days, they [Jon and Wendy] are confronted with what adulthood, family and, most surprisingly, each other are really about." You see the siblings try to negotiate how to structure their complex lives in order to handle caregiving duties. You see each sibling come to grips about what Lennie can and can not do. You see Wendy try to come to terms about placing the father in the nursing home (and trying to determine the quality of the nursing home). You see Wendy and Jon struggle to have a long-overdue conversation with Lennie about his end-of-life wishes. You see the Lennie's emotional outbursts. And you see the aftermath of caregiving, including how Wendy and Jon are impacted and changed following the father's death.
The scene that resonated the most with me is when Jon and Wendy take Lennie to a new (and fancier) nursing home to try to seek placement. There's a scene where the nursing home administrator asks that list of screening questions in order to determine Lennie's mental capacity. You can see Wendy trying her hardest to will her father to answer the questions correctly (and at one point, quietly mouthing the answer so that he might get it right) in order to ensure his placement in this well-groomed facility.
I remember having the same feelings when my mom was in the hospital for a geriatric psychiatric evaluation. Trying to utilize the telepathy that Mom and I always seemed to have for 40-plus years, I can remember thinking, "OK, Mom, the day of the week is Thursday" and "The president of the United States is George W. Bush" or "One of the words you were to remember was ‘apple'." None of it worked, and my futile mental attempts to assist Mom in answering the questions correctly were heart-breaking. You can see that same feeling come over Wendy's face when Lennie answers incorrectly.
I left The Savages feeling sad, but also feeling like the movie attested to the challenges and the gifts inherent in caregiving. Upon getting into my car, I called my father to report. "Did you cry?" Dad asked. "Not yet, but I very well might," I replied. Those two hours were difficult to watch, but I also think it was time well-spent. The Savages is a testament not only to the challenges we face as caregivers, but also how we can rise up to become our better selves.