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....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.
"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....
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.