Whispers come from the hallway as Margaret Thatcher’s assistants speak about her deteriorating mental condition. As she peeks through a crack in the door, Thatcher eavesdrops and occasionally speaks with her husband, who is eating his breakfast. While she seems to be in fine mental health at first, audiences soon realize that the images of her husband are hallucinations.
The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated performance in the title role, addresses the former British prime minister’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, which complicate her view of reality and send her on a journey through her own memories.
Once one of the world’s most powerful political figures, the film portrays Thatcher as a helpless woman unable to leave the house on her own without causing alarm – not even for a pint of milk.
“This film is unusual because Margaret Thatcher is still alive, and some people feel that she is being humiliated by being labeled as demented in her later years. To the contrary, though, I think this film has helped people feel more sympathetic to what she accomplished in her life and to understand the struggle she has faced in recent years,” said USC Davis School of Gerontology clinical assistant professor Aaron Hagedorn. “The stories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan demonstrate to us that anyone can get this disease and show us how difficult it is to see a highly accomplished life of hard work end in a quiet and disorienting way.”
The Iron Lady is one of the most recent films that address the aging population’s struggle with diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Representing the truly global scope of these diseases, the last decade has seen several such films, including Poetry (2010, South Korea), Away From Her (2006, Canada), The Notebook (2004, United States) and Iris (2001, United Kingdom), depicting the challenges that older adults – and the people who love and care for them – encounter while faced with a debilitating mental illness.
“Showing people with dementia in films to some extent perpetuates the stereotype that older people are forgetful or senile, but they also allow audiences to see the human side of the disease, to realize that anyone could be affected and to discover that life goes on long after the disease is apparent,” Hagedorn said. “With 4.5 million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the United States, many millions more can relate to what it is like and can relate to demented characters.”
In Poetry, a Korean grandmother named Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee) must raise her grandson and work to support her family while being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As her disease progresses, she enrolls herself in a poetry class that allows her to find her voice even though she is in a mental decline and struggling with the destructive actions of her grandson. Despite the considerable stressors and setbacks she faces, she is able to discover and focus on moments of true beauty.
“While it’s true that keeping one’s mind active is generally associated with reduced risk of showing signs of Alzheimer’s, we don’t really know whether it’s too late to see an effect of brain exercise after the disease is apparent,” Hagedorn said. “This film does, however, give us hope that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s isn’t an immediate death sentence. We could have 10 or even 15 more years or so of potentially meaningful life left to live, to create and leave a legacy.”
As difficult and frightening as dementia may be for the older adult who receives the diagnosis, it also presents a major impact for his or her family and caregivers. Both Away From Her and Iris deal with husbands attempting to care for their wives whose mental faculties are declining.
In Away From Her, Fiona (Julie Christie) experiences a moment of clarity and chooses to check herself into a nursing home despite the fears of her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Deteriorating quickly, Fiona begins to forget her husband and embarks on a romantic relationship with a married patient.
Iris is based on the life of British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet and Judi Dench) and her relationship with John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent, in an Oscar-winning performance). The frustration, hopelessness and isolation experienced by many caretakers plays out onscreen as John must care for his declining wife, increasingly losing control of her mind and body, as he seeks to reconcile his love and respect for the fiercely independent woman he married whom he is forced to watch slowly disappear.
More glossy and romantic than the other, more realistic films, The Notebook presents a similar story of a loving man, Noah (Ryan Gosling and James Garner), who sees the love of his life, Allie, (Rachel McAdams and Gena Rowlands) struggle with dementia and the loss of her memories. Telling her their love story is the only way Noah can rekindle their connection, before Allie’s brief moment of lucidity disappears.
“These films show how quickly the disease can progress and how everything may eventually be forgotten, leaving behind people who truly care. This is very hurtful, but we must remember that it is not the demented person’s fault, and there is little anyone can do,” Hagedorn said. “These films tell us not to expect too much out of the demented. If you expect gratification, you will likely be disappointed. If you simply live in the moment, just like the person with Alzheimer’s, expecting nothing in return, you can be grateful for life in the present and what you’ve shared together before.”
What unites each of these films is that, even though Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can rob an older adult of their past and personality, they still retain a core of humanity and, as such, deserve respect, care and dignity. It is devastating for Thatcher when, at the end of the film, she is able to grasp that her husband is indeed dead and must confront losing him and the reality of her reduced circumstances. Although her awareness is not a permanent state, in that moment the audience is reminded that, despite her failing health, Thatcher remains a strong, vibrant woman at heart, and for an instant, she feels some freedom from the illness that has trapped her.
“Films like these help us to relate to people with Alzheimer’s as real people who still have their emotional selves, even if they’ve lost their ability to express themselves verbally,” Hagedorn said. “They can show us what it’s like to rise up to a certain level in life and then find yourself unsure what is real and what is not. They can teach us that there are resources caregivers can turn to and that no one needs to face this alone. They can remind us that demented people have a very strong perception of emotion, and holding hands can mean the world to someone who has little to live for beyond the present.”
In other words, these films reflect a universal struggle to make sense of a devastating disease that does not discriminate in terms of nationality, gender or race, that continues to challenge caregiver, patient and scientist alike, and it is only through a compassionate focus on our shared humanity that we can – if only for a moment – escape its reach.