Monday, 30 April 2012

TV Review - Louis Theroux Extreme Love: Dementia

In the UK we don’t like to talk about old people.  Out of sight and out of mind is the policy we adopt.  Once you reach a certain age you will be quietly told your services are not required and you will relegated to the margins of society as you cease to become “useful”.  You will then be expected to stay nice and quiet tending to your garden, drinking your Horlicks or even better dumped in a care home where other people can worry about you. 

More importantly you will be expected to stay out of the eye line of the young who you are constantly burdening with your cardigan-clad presence, a constant reminder of the insidious threat of their mortality.

If you thought last weeks episode on autism pulled at the heart strings this weeks subject of dementia is the equivalent of an Ethiopian baby with flies on his face. In America 1 in 8 people under 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s and that figure goes up to 1 in 2 for those aged 85 and over.  That means pretty much everyone is going to be touched with the long bony finger of senility at some point in their lives.

This time Louis was in Phoenix, dementia capital of America due to the deluge of retirees who go there to roost.  He visits upscale care home Beatitudes whose philosophy of “redirecting” rather then drugging confused residents unwittingly creates comedy amongst the tragedy.  Carers manage to calm distressed patients and stop them walking out by playing along with their delusions.

“We tell white lies all day long here. All day”

One such sufferer is ladies man Gary Gilliam who at 69 is Beatitudes youngest resident.  We see him roaming the corridors trying to find the front door.  Funny, mobile and intelligent on the face of it there is nothing wrong with him.  Problem is he still thinks he is a practising dentist stationed on a military base.  Every so often he will pack his bags thinking it was time to ship out only to be cajoled into staying by carers who “redirect” him by getting him to look at their teeth.  He lives in a twilight world of partially remembered reality, a Groundhog Day of confusion.

When asked he tells Louis he isn’t married even though Carla his wife of 26 yrs comes to visit him every week.  In fact during one of Louis visits he takes them both out to lunch but things get complicated when Gary drags along one of his care home girlfriends. He puts his arm around her whilst his wife just walks ahead.  Carla is also aware that other things are going on at Beatitudes. She has also seen another woman go into his room and take her clothes off

“I don’t know what happens after that”

She is remarkably sanguine about the change in the dynamic of their relationship and his lack of recognition but perhaps she is just keeping a brave face for the cameras.

“I’m just his buddy…I realise it’s not him.  It’s the disease”

What are her feelings at this point?

“I’ve always loved him. I’m so saddened by this. I never thought I’d see him in this position”

Another touching story is that of John & Nancy Vaughan.  Not able to come up with the $4000 a month it takes for private care John 88, has no choice but to look after his 89yr old wife in throws of Alzheimer’s who has

“Many of the same needs as a very large toddler”

She still had the sparkle in her eye but her husband estimates that only about 30% Nancy’s mind is left intact.  She struggles with the basic elements of memory such as her name and her husband had taken to wearing a name badge and to sticking their wedding photos on the wall to prove to her in her moments of confusion that he is her husband.

Louis:“Nancy, what is your name?”
Nancy:“At this point? Nancy?”
Louis: “And your maiden name?”
Nancy: “Bread”

John had the patience of Jove but had taken to deep breathing exercises to manage his frustration.  To give Louis a taste of what he had to deal with John goes out for a well earned breather and leaves Louis to it. Before he goes Louis asks for advice.

“Are there any things that redirect Nancy to a positive place”?
“You’re the improvisation man”

Louis quickly runs out of ideas and the 5 hours he spends with Nancy turn into the longest day of his life.  When John comes back Nancy doesn’t know who he is.  After they get reacquainted Nancy asks her husband

“Do you like me?”
“Much more than that.”

Their relationship is love in its purest form.  We should not pity them for they have been blessed with an all encompassing bond that most of us can only hope to emulate.  They are the dictionary definition of till death us do part.

Perhaps because the encroaching shadow of dementia affects us all I was profoundly moved by this programme perhaps more than any other of Louis documentaries.  Most of the carers battle through each day living for the fragments of recognition, the gaps of light through the curtains where the true personality of the sufferer comes to the surface.  As time goes on these luminescent moments become less and less.  It is heartbreaking.

One panicked husband whose wife is rapidly falling victim to aggressive type of Alzheimer’s succinctly condenses the worry that all of us must feel when confronted with the problem

“What’s it going to be like when you’re with the person you have been with for so many years and they don’t remember you?”

Captivating, thought-provoking, funny and sad this might be Louis' finest work.  You MUST watch this programme and can do so here.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

TV Review- Louis Theroux Extreme Love: Autism

It has to be every parent’s worst nightmare to have a child born with a disability.  The children’s parties you were planning?  Forget them. Those kick-a-bouts in the park? Not going to happen. Aspirations that your child might be a doctor or a lawyer? Nothing more then pipe dreams.  Your horizons are likely to be hugely diminished as you face an emotional, tiring, interminable grind with very little reward.  No matter how much love you have for that child there must always be a part of you thinking “Why me?”

Louis Theroux’s latest documentary Extreme Love: Autism is not his usual jokey take on life on the margins of society.  The emotion it elicits from the viewer is predominantly one of sympathy. He takes a behind the scenes look at the human impact of a neurological disorder that affects 1 in a 100 people but has baffled doctors who have no clue as to its cause or cure.

In his traditional American stomping ground of New Jersey Louis spends time with a few families associated with the pioneering DLC School whose aim is to provide basic life skills in order to integrate kids into the mainstream.  At times the place does resemble One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest with kids freaking out and attacking staff who do an incredibly difficult and challenging job with pupils that are often unable to express themselves in a normal way.  Autistic children normally find most social interaction extremely difficult, as Louis quickly learns when he is routinely blanked by a number of kids in the programme.

One such child is Marcelo, who will fly into hysterics when he does not get his way or if his routine is changed. Just watching him regress into toddler-mode in the back of the car when his mum fails to stop at the supermarket is a draining experience. Later Marcelo refuses to get his hair cut, goes ballistic and Louis only manages to placate him with a video of Peppa Pig on his iPhone.

 Marcelo’s parents admit it has taken a strain on their marriage.  They have two autistic children and Paula confides:

“God forgive me but I don’t get much enjoyment from them”

As they discuss how all the fun has drained out of their marriage it gets too much for the husband and he has to leave the room as he dissolves into tears.  Your heart goes out to him.  Louis asks them what it is they hope for, a miracle perhaps.

“Silence” the wife replies.

Another challenging kid is Brian. A burly teenager with an obsession for food he has had to be housed in a special care home and only sees his mother at the weekends.  Turns out he burnt down the family home and assaulted his mother and had to be removed for everybody’s safety. Louis goes for drive with them and looks a little nervous as Brian constantly stares at him.

“Brian seems quite sociable”

Louis declares optimistically.  Later Louis is left to interact with him and the trademark autistic unpredictability rears its head when apropos of nothing Brian takes off his clothes and hunts for food in the kitchen in just his pants.

“He loves to eat” explains his mum.

The school has helped him control some of his rages and his mother explains that he used to choke and hit her when he didn’t get his way.

“Things were absolutely unbearable”

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Nicky is a likeable character that seems to have been able to make a monumental improvement with his condition and proves for some there is light at the end of a long dark tunnel. From being diagnosed as severely autistic, with the help of DLC, he on his way to graduating to a mainstream school.   He speaks Japanese and has written a baffling novel about dragons. He reads it aloud to Louis.

“What do you think?”

“er…it’s great”

Later in the piece he even manages to turn the tables on Louis by Googling his Wikipedia entry and questioning some of his achievements “Can we move on to something else?”.  Louis is with him on his first day preparing for his new school and he offers to give him a hug to calm his nerves.

“I’m not gay you know”

His mother speaks with pride about his son’s achievements and if she had a magic wand wouldn’t remove his autism as she says it defines his character.  It’s a lovely sentiment but she is afforded this luxury as she doesn’t have to treat him like a toddler every waking hour of the day. Nicky is the acceptable face of autism: funny in a Dustin Hoffman type way, able to interact with others, chock full of idiosyncrasies and the potential to make a decent life for himself.  Most sufferers aren’t that lucky.

By the end of the programme the viewer like Louis is left with “a respect bordering on awe” for parents who try and maintain a quiet dignity despite the circumstances enforced by this debilitating condition. Virtually all the parents look utterly defeated but have no choice but to battle through.

Lately we have seen Louis move further away from his tongue in cheek beginnings and he is starting to emerge has a hard hitting documentarian to rival the Nick Broomfields and the  Michael Moores of this world.  Expect more sobering insights in the second part of his Extreme Love series next week when Louis delves into the world of dementia.

You can watch the programme until May 4th here

Friday, 6 April 2012

Hose Pipe Scam

As I look out the window at the overcast skies, I see grim figures wrapped up against the cold as they traipse through the adjacent car park that is wet with rain. The trees and grass that surround the building look a healthy, verdant shade of green. It’s 8C. The scene looks more like dreary Scunthorpe than the searing Serengeti. But it’s official: we are apparently in the middle of a drought.

As of yesteday water companies in the Thames, Southern, South East, Anglian, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East areas have imposed a hosepipe ban on their 20 million customers. Watering gardens, washing cars and filling swimming pools with a hose are verboeten and anyone breaking this curfew will be shot at dawn by a firing squad (or they can pay fines of up to £1000).

In between splashing passersby from his rooftop pool Martin Baggs, chief executive of Thames Water, said:

"Imposing restrictions on the use of hosepipes, although regrettable, is the most sensible and responsible next step in encouraging everyone to use less water so we can maintain supplies for as long as it stays dry, and reduce the risk of more serious restrictions later in the year."

Let me break this down for you. Thames Water once state run is now owned by an Australian investment bank. In 2010/2011 it lost 665 million liters A DAY in leaks (under its OFWAT target of 674 Ml/d, whoop-de-doo). Its operating profits in 2011 were over £600 million. As a result of “hitting his targets” Baggs took home bonuses worth £1.67million. Ker-ching!

We may have had a couple of dry summers but it has hardly been like Death Valley around here. The great unwashed would be a little more understanding on the need to cut back if costs hadn’t increased to inflation busting levels and if there wasn’t such an emphasis on profits over service. Would it be too much to ask that some of the £500million that was paid to the water companies' mainly foreign shareholders for the six months to September 2011 go on much needed repairs? All of these companies are foreign owned and have traded hands a few times since their privatisation in 1989. Instead of investing in infrastructure companies have concentrated on “a fair return on the investments made”. No consolation for you Petunias I should imagine.

Being a country surrounded by water where the stuff normally pisses out of the sky on a regular basis for a good 7 months of the year you would think it impossible to be left up Sh*t Creek without the need for paddle. Build extra reservoirs, improving distribution from water rich areas up north, creation of desalination plants and upgrading the Victorian network of pipes. None of these are “viable” as they eat into profits.

How can these water companies offer such a substandard service? Well, they are state sanctioned monopolies monitored by a toothless regulatory agency in OFWAT. They can do what the f*ck they like as you have nowhere else to go. That’s not strictly true. You could buy Evian and wash in the nearest swimming baths but for me this isn’t very convenient.

I lived in Spain for a while and never heard of a hose pipe ban in the Alicante area during all the time I was there. I would wager their rainfall was less then half that of the UK. I was in Texas last summer during one of their hottest and driest periods and people will still watering their lawns without threat of sanctions. Frankly, we are a joke.

That not to say we should take the p*ss. I predict water shortages are to become a depressing reality in an increasingly populated society that lives under the looming spectre of climate change. Personally, I think water meters should be obligatory. I have one and it is the only real way to encourage users to behave sensibly. Since having it put in I won’t leave taps and showers running unnecessarily.

Now the ban is in force no one is safe from a nation of curtain-twitchers keen to grass up the neighbours they don’t get on with. Luckily, I don’t have a garden.