November 24, 2007

"These patients are still people, they are still emotional and they still need love."

The story of Justice O'Connor and her husband, who, debilitated by Alzheimer's, found a new love, makes us want to think more deeply about what it means to have a relationship with someone who can no longer remember you:
Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said new relationships among dementia patients can often be very hard on families....

"The emotion center of the brain tends to be relatively well preserved in dementia patients, even as their memory disappears. ... The key to understanding these relationships is that that these patients are still people, they are still emotional and they still need love," she said....
Is there any choice but to manifest acceptance of what has happened, to be generous to the person who is — after all — dying? The real pain and jealousy — if it exists — must be endured privately. But one need not tell the world about any of it, as Justice O'Connor has chosen to do. There is little point in her saying: Look what is happening to me and how well I am taking it. I'm thinking that, knowing this is common occurrence, she is offering some moral support for others who are facing what she is. It's a generosity extending outward, to strangers.

It happens that there is an excellent movie on the subject this year called "Away From Her," an adaptation of an Alice Munro story called "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (available now as a separate book).  I watched the movie the other day, then read the story. I wanted to read the story to understand more of something I thought I saw in the movie, but what I was interested in was not part of Munro's story at all. It was introduced by the screenplay writer, the film's director, Sarah Polley.

Early in the movie, the husband, Grant, tours the nursing home where he will put his wife, Fiona. We see that there are 2 floors to the facility, the first floor, where patients are continually involved in socializing, and the second floor, where they put more "progressed" patients. Grant refuses to look at the second floor or even to think of Fiona ending up there. Later, we see that on the second floor, there are simple rooms and no socializing. 

Don't we all, always, move between the first and second floor, the life of socializing and the life of solitude? We have different preferences, and some of us are more introverted and choose to live on the second floor. I thought there was a larger concept to the movie, and I have to spoil the ending to say what I mean.

On the first floor, Fiona becomes attached to another resident, a man named Aubrey. She sits with him and watches him play bridge, and she tends to him. She's absorbed in him. Her husband tries to reach her, by bringing her books and reading to her as he had done in the past. (He was a professor of Icelandic literature, and she was of Icelandic ancestry, and the book is about Iceland.) She can't understand him, and she what she likes about Aubrey is that he doesn't confuse her. 

When Aubrey leaves the facility, Fiona declines and, consequently, they move her to the second floor. Grant does what he can to get Aubrey back, but in the end, before Aubrey's return, Grant enters the room and finds Fiona reading the book about Iceland. She seems alive again, restored by reading, and she can, to some extent, recognize and love her husband again. She isn't confused by a book or a man who is devoted to books, she's reoriented.

I thought this meant something about solitude, reading, and the life of the mind. I thought the message was something like: We fall out of touch with our humanity, we lose our grip on our own identity if our life is filled with socializing. Or: Institutions are designed by extroverts, who think there's something wrong if there isn't continual social interaction, and an introverted person, who thrives in the life of the mind, is ruined in such a place.

I don't think Munro's story says anything like this, but I think it is the leavening that Sarah Polley — who is only 27 — brought to the story, giving it a much broader and more universal meaning. 

19 comments:

christopher said...

Polley's a raging Lefty, BTW.

Hah.

rhhardin said...

Are there internet connections on the second floor?

Life of the mind means different things to men and women, by the way.

Ron said...

Jeez, if all I had to get for love was Alzheimers, I'd forget what I just wrote!

reader_iam said...

Life of the mind means different things to men and women, by the way.

How do you mean?

And do you mean across the board?

rhhardin said...

How do you mean?

Men are more into skepticism and how to know things. A life of the mind goes more mathmatical or at least abstract, to find a corner of the universe where at last something will be settled once and for all.

Women are more into love and its complexities. The life of the mind is thinking about this, not to settle anything but to narrate it and bring out fleeting aspects ; instead of, say, buying shoes.

Absolutely, across the board. What good is a generalization that you can't count on?

reader_iam said...

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.
--Albert Einstein

F15C said...

As a teenager I worked a summer job as a janitor in a facility that had two wings: The 'circle' for those who were coherent and more or less mobile; and the 'west wing' for those more advanced - or degraded depending on your perspective. The split is done for several reasons. One is so those less advanced don't have to see their future selves on display. Another is the pragmatics of health care and staffing that is keeping those with similar needs clustered together for efficiency and improved care. Another reason is that when people come to visit the folks in the circle (which sadly is not often) they don't have to deal with the admittedly upsetting aspects of the west wing.

At first the work in the west wing bothered me but I acclimated over the summer and grew to appreciate the situation as best a 17 year old mind could.

Little did I know that many, many years later my Dad would end up in that facility. In the west wing. And that is where he died.

reader_iam said...

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
--Albert Einstein

reader_iam said...

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
--Albert Einstein

reader_iam said...

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Einstein is how androgynous--if that's how you want to describe it, which I don't, really--his mind appears to have been.

reader_iam said...

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
--Albert Einstein

OK, now I'll quit with the OT, except to post one more Einstein quote, which sort of pops my own pretensions and excesses:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Blake said...

Late Einstein was jealous of early Einstein.

Polley was wonderful in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Next time I recall seeing her she's all grown up and fighting zombies in the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

Jonathan said...

This is a very interesting post. It reminds me of Jonathan (not me) Rauch's essay about the tension between introverts and extroverts. Rauch wrote it from his POV as an introvert, and I suspect that only an introvert would see an issue. But where Rauch sees introverts and extroverts as distinct types of people, you suggest out that most of us fluctuate between various degrees of introversion and extroversion during our lives and even during each day.

As an aside, I think you are right about the nobility of Justice O'Connor's motive in discussing publicly her husband's situation.

Peter Stevens said...

"Away From Her" was an emotionally difficult movie to watch. I happened to catch it on cable TV three weeks ago when staying at a friend's house.

Gordon Pinsent's being in the movie prompted me to watch because I'm an ex-pat Canadian who knows his work from having grown up there.

I didn't recognize Julie Christie. She didn't bear much resemblance to Lara in Dr. Zhivago with her hair loose.

PatCA said...

I didn't finish reading your post until I saw the movie, which was sitting next in line on my coffee table and, yes, I like your take on it. Could it be also she is saying that romantic relationships distract you, keep you from, your own life of the mind?

I surmise from Polley's digs in the movie at America that she is a raging lefty, without christopher having to tell me. Too bad--they took me out of the movie. Both were gratuitous and a little juvenile.

And I think Christie looked fabulous. With good cheekbones and that hair, aging doesn't hurt her a bit.

Ann Althouse said...

"I didn't finish reading your post until I saw the movie, which was sitting next in line on my coffee table and, yes, I like your take on it."

Thanks for watching it with my comments in mind and writing this.

"Could it be also she is saying that romantic relationships distract you, keep you from, your own life of the mind?"

Yes. Good point.

"I surmise from Polley's digs in the movie at America that she is a raging lefty, without christopher having to tell me. Too bad--they took me out of the movie. Both were gratuitous and a little juvenile."

It marred the movie's coherence, but it actually was a pretty funny joke to have a woman who'd forgotten nearly everything watch the news about Iraq and say "Have they forgotten Vietnam?"

"And I think Christie looked fabulous. With good cheekbones and that hair, aging doesn't hurt her a bit."

She was so extremely beautiful when young that she never had anything to prove -- like some of these stars today who needed a lot of work just to get to beautiful. With that superiority, she was in a nice position to explore the seasons of beauty and to show us what the late stage can be. Vanessa Redgrave has done that too (although she started out less beautiful than Christie).

One thing about Christie is that she maintained her figure. She wore elegant clothes (except when she lost herself and wore that multicolored sweater). Those white coats!

PatCA said...

I also loved those coats! She looks great--thin, but not skinny or out of shape. Well done, Julie. Inspiring.

rhhardin said...

This Johnny Cash is pretty good.

Imus interviews Cash on the same album. (5 clips)

Peter Stevens said...

A question for Ann and PatCA. Why do you feel it important enough to comment on the beauty of Julie Christie? I wasn't struck by her looks nearly as much as when she in Dr. Zhivago 45 years ago.