My (Emotional) Response to Away From Her
The experts on this site have been writing about Away From Her for months. Up until now, I have refused to watch the movie. It felt too close to home. And I wasn't sure I was ready to deal with that part yet... I have vascular dementia at 59 years of age. That's good news as it is not a quickly debilitating as Alzheimer's can be. But, dementia is dementia. Raw and ugly.
Having seen the Academy Awards, I knew that Julie Christie had been up for an Oscar. In addition, the DVD was front and center at Best Buy where my husband and I were buying DVD's to send to our troops in Iraq. Facing me square in the eye, Away From Her was challenging me to take the leap into the unknown, to a portrayal of what is yet to come...
I watched it alone, telling my husband that I wasn't sure he was ready to watch it yet. The movie left me speechless. I sat stupefied as the credits whirred by. Why did this movie do this to me? I felt beaten down by what I had seen. The snippets of advice concerning Alzheimer's were not as jarring to me as seeing Laura, played by Julie Christie, spiral down so quickly once she was institutionalized.
It startled me to see the similarities in our loss of short term memory. When she describes her lack of memory as if there is nothing there - that is EXACTLY how it feels. I have learned to cover up my lack of memory at times. I wait quietly and look and listen for clues. Sometimes, on the good days, my memory kicks in. This usually happens on weekends when my husband and I are running errands together, an activity which I love to share with him.
Often, I can't remember once we're in the car where we're headed. Granted, if I were having to do the driving, I would have written down the list of places we're going and I wouldn't be in such a pickle. Most of the time I just sit quietly in anticipation of our next stop, taking in clues from the direction we are driving. Many times, though, I have to break down and ask him where we are going next because, just as Laura said, there is no memory to be had-nothing.
When Laura asked where Iceland was, I thought...that's me. My base knowledge level has fallen just as hers had. Not knowing how long she had lived in her cottage was not a new experience to me - I can't even remember now whether I was diagnosed with dementia in July of last year or the year before. (I've since looked into my files and think it was diagnosed July, 2006.) So many times, I have to stop and dig and dig and dig...just like Laura portrayed when there were long silences before she spoke. At times like that in the movie, I thought-there I am.
Yet, I do not have Alzheimer's. I am not wandering about not knowing where I am. I do not put the pan into the refrigerator...though I did once find the sugar in there. (Couldn't have been me! LOL) It is frightening and sometimes downright depressing to see what my future might hold. This fear is real, a fact of life, not a ploy for pity. It is something I have to deal with. Luckily, I can put it on a back burner and live each day as it comes-until I watch something like Away From Her.
I know that I am looking at the movie in a different way than most people. I wondered why she was institutionalized so early? Her husband was retired. He had plenty of time to be with Laura. It seemed to me that once they got the diagnosis, Laura immediately gave into the disease. I know that, in a movie, you must progress quickly along in the story line because there is a limit to your time, film, and money. I think the script moved her into an institutional setting too quickly. The movie was a bit unrealistic in its desire to get on with the story line. Perhaps most people would not even realize that this progression was too quick. And, perhaps, as long as the producers/directors remained faithful to the story line, it doesn't really make any difference.
I want to address the idea of putting someone into an institution. The institution where Laura was placed was light and airy and provided many activities to keep the patients' minds busy. There were many chances for socialization. The rooms were large. The patients dressed quite well...it wasn't at all like what I see when I go into the local nursing homes. Locally, the only places I have visited have been dull, dreary, deadly in spirit. People are often in bedclothes, sitting forlornly by themselves, some hunched over asleep in their chairs.
The rooms are small and often shared. They look like housing for the castaway elderly. I can't even imagine the cost of putting a loved one into such an outstanding institution as shown in Away From Her. And even as nice as the institution was in the movie, it still was an institution. Family and friends came to visit and then they left. And who is left behind? The patients themselves and their caretakers who are usually overworked and underpaid. Not a good situation for stimulation. No wonder people in institutions seem to get worse more quickly than if they had stayed out in society, living a more normal life for as long as earthly possible.
The relationship formed by Laura and the gentleman in the institution must have been comforting to the two of them, but horrific for their spouses. I found it particularly interesting that the caregivers made no judgment where this behavior was concerned. Easy for them - they were not emotionally connected. Then, too, they had experience with the ravages of Alzheimer's and nothing seemed to surprise them. (I won't even address the husband's poor behavior with the wife of the man Laura had befriended! That behavior ticked me off!)
There are so many more levels I could write about. But I am drained. And I just don't want to think about it any more. Let me say, though, that the acting was excellent in this film and I strongly encourage anyone interested in Alzheimer's and dementia to watch it.