Dementia is Having a Cinematic Moment: What Christian Families Can Take Away From It

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After going through a year we’d all like to forget, many of 2020’s movies ironically remind us how painful forgetting can be.

More than any time I can remember recently, last year featured a number of thoughtful movies dealing directly with the issues of dementia and memory loss, and how those difficult struggles affect and influence our closest relationships—especially in our families.

Relic, a curious little horror movie, was the first to land on my cinematic radar. This small Australian movie takes us into the workings of a three-generational family where the matriarch seems to be slowly turning into an unrecognizable monster—forgetting who she is and lashing out at those she loves. While the monster is very real on screen, the whole movie could easily be read as a metaphor for dementia and Alzheimer’s, and how they turn the people we love into people we barely recognize.

The Life Ahead, streaming on Netflix and garnering a bit of Oscar buzz for its star, Sophia Loren, tackles this issue head on, detailing the relationship between a prostitute-turned-babysitter who cares for a Senegalese orphan who robbed her. As they grow closer, the boy (Momo) begins to see that—as stern and as loving as she is—Loren’s Madame Rosa isn’t always all there.

Perhaps the year’s most towering rumination on the subject, The Father, won’t be in theaters until February. (Look for our review closer to the Feb. 26 release date.) But it’s one of the most effective movies I’ve seen this year. Anthony Hopkins is a surefire Oscar nominee for his portrayal of a man slowly losing himself, with Olivia Colman playing his overworked, grieving daughter. Other awards-season contenders, from the gay drama Supernova to the surprisingly wacky documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, reportedly deal with the subject as well.

It’s long been said that art reflects life, so in a way this surge of Alzheimer’s and dementia-inflected dramas has been a long time in coming. As we all live longer, the risk of memory-related diseases grows more likely. It’s estimated that 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to grow over the next several decades. Many, if not most, of us know, and perhaps even care for, someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

I watched my grandmother fade from that disease, and dementia has touched my life in other ways, too. It’s a frightening, sad thing, and one that can feel unfair in its slow-motion cruelty. To watch someone lose herself over time … that’s incredibly difficult. And perhaps in our weaker moments, we might be excused for wondering why God would allow it.

The movies I’ve mentioned all have plenty of content issues to be wary of, so be sure to check out our full reviews. But for whatever problems they suffer, most of these films that I’ve seen contain a bittersweet coda: Yes, our loved ones are not who they were. But they’re still worthy of love. They’re still beautiful creatures. They’re still people of tremendous dignity.

“I feel like I’m losing all my leaves,” Hopkins’ character says in The Father. In Relic, the grandmother in question processes the loss differently—as if pages in her book were slowly being ripped out. These are horrible things, obviously. And yet each film shows that these characters, though diminished, still appreciate love and tenderness and beauty. Each finds solace—bittersweet, certainly, to those who care for them—in the few memories that remain, or the fleeting beauty in the present.

And I think, as Christians, we can take something more from all this, too.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” we read in Matthew 6:19-21, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We think of this verse in terms of material possessions, of course—but I wonder if we should keep it in mind for what we hold even more precious: our memories.

Those memories are gifts, of course—the elements we can and should value most. And yet, like all precious things, they can be hoarded, even idolized; a source of vanity and distraction. I know that, sometimes, they can be for me. We lay up these treasures, believing that they cannot be destroyed or stolen. And yet, as we’ve so painfully seen, sometimes they can.

I’ve often wondered why God makes aging so difficult. It seems that, when we hit a certain point, we sometimes find that what we treasure is slowly stripped from us, bit by bit. Our sight. Our hearing. Our strength. Our health.

I don’t like that twist in the story. Don’t like it one bit. And I wonder sometimes what God’s up to behind it all.I wonder if the process of aging, in all its terrible forms, isn’t all about diminishing us in this life, but preparing us for the next one. We’re not of this world, the bumper sticker says. And as God preps us for the world we were made for, to be in union with Him forever, He distills our beings into the bare essentials—reminding us all that everything we love, everything we treasure, is simply a dirty mirror reflecting the true love and beauty and belonging that awaits us.

Once night when I visited my grandmother, when she was just beginning to obviously show the ravages of dementia, I saw her cry. She knew she wasn’t who she used to be. She knew something was wrong, but seemed powerless to do much. She was not much of a crier: The only time I’d seen her weep had been when my grandfather died.

But then, still crying, she turned to me and said, “But it’s OK. Because we love each other.” That’s a profound truth, I think, and one reflected in many of the movies above. In the end, our treasures—even those we’ve stored away in our minds—can be taken from us, stolen or eaten away. But even if we lose them, even if we lose everything, one truth can never be taken away: Love. When all is gone, love remains. And that’s something.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

4 Responses

  1. -Yes! Thank you for sharing this….Over 10 years ago or so my dad’s mom had a stroke that left her very much at home having to be lifted/not being able to walk, very moody at times, with bad nights, forgetting where she was and basically a shell of her former self. It was due to multiple strokes and not dementia but essentially the strokes left her dementia like and was very hard to watch what used to be a very active, hardworking person who enjoyed life and did so much be redused to sitting in a chair each day. She was a trooper, but knew she hated having to be washed and cared for like that. She was always very independent and know it was hard for her. But she was glad for her family and husband of many many years…It’s not something I would want to go through again because of how hard emtionally not to mention physically, but especially emotionally- to see her waste away and become so fragile. It’s a very hard thing and never would wish it on anyone…

  2. -I have worked as a music therapist and dementia care specialist in nursing homes, assisted living centers and adult day centers since 1996. Your article has touched me deeply with its poignancy, perspective and truth.

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