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.

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