Infirmities: The Caregiver

“…I suspect there are a lot of caregivers who would tell us that the film isn’t a realistic portrayal of their lives.”

by Dave Riley

I HAVE NEVER BEEN A CAREGIVER for someone with Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia. I have known some such caregivers, and from what I can glean, the road they travel can be monumentally difficult. People who have led nominally comfortable lives and then find themselves on virtually 24-hour call give up much — emotionally, physically, financially.

A while back Mrs. R. and I watched a TV rerun about a woman in the advanced stages of dementia, The Notebook. The film depicts an older man quite in command of his faculties, reading to an equally older woman the story of two young people who meet and fall in love. The young girl is 17-year-old Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), the daughter of a rich southern family. Her young man is a slightly older Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling), an engaging dude who works at the town’s mill for forty cents an hour. See a potential conflict here?

If you haven’t seen the movie, you may wish to stop here, because I’m going to give away some but not all of the ending. It is a beautiful story — two stories really — one of passionate young love and one of incredibly devoted old love. In old age Noah, now known as Duke, is played by James Garner and Allie by Gena Rowlands. Allie is in a nursing home because of dementia, and Duke, who loves her dearly, lives there as well.

THEIR KIDS CAN’T UNDERSTAND IT. “Daddy, come home,” they say after a visit to the nursing home.. ‘Mama doesn’t know us… She doesn’t recognize you…She’ll never understand … We miss you.”

But Duke will have none of it. “Look, guys, that’s my sweetheart in there. I’m not leaving her. This is my home now. Your mother is my home.”

The notebook is a diary of sorts that Allie wrote when she still had her faculties but knew she would be slipping away. She created it so Duke could read it to her and maybe, when her condition got worse, she would remember things and maybe be jolted back to reality. And she is jolted back occasionally, if only for five or so minutes at a time.

Duke reads to her in various scenes during the film, and at one point Allie says, “I think I’ve heard it before.

“Yes.” Duke replies with a smile.

For a lot of reasons, The Notebook is a film well worth seeing: a terrifically engaging script and wonderful acting, all filmed against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful wetlands of South Carolina. Under it all is a wonderfully  engaging soundtrack by prolific film composer Aaron Zigman.

However I suspect there are a lot of caregivers who would tell us that the film isn’t a realistic portrayal of their lives. Caring for someone with dementia can require long hours and an almost inexhaustible amount of patience and understanding. A relative of mine, a physical therapist who treats dementia patients daily, says that the people she deals with run the gamut from those who are sweet and smiling, but have no ability to take care of themselves to those who  are perpetually cantankerous.

But apparently Duke has the resources to have Allie in an assisted living facility, and he lives there as well to be near her. Okay, that’s it, I’m not going to give away any more of the ending.

IN DECEMBER OF 1995, Mrs. R. and I were standing in a line outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a moist day, a common condition on the Monterey Peninsula at that time of the year. As we waited, my wandering eyes fixed on a couple probably twenty-five yards away. They were a marvelously good looking pair, both quite trim and, I would oldercoupleguess, in their early sixties. She had stylishly coiffed gray hair, a smart plaid raincoat, and low heels. He looked like a walking ad for Barney’s. It’s dangerous to make assumptions from appearances, but it struck me that this couple had been leading a very comfortable life.

Eventually the man said to the woman (as best I can recall his words): “Now tell me again. What are we doing here?”

“We’re at the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” she said in a voice that exuded care. “We’re going inside soon.”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “Now I remember.”

It was the first time in my life I had actually observed anyone suffering from dementia. So unaware was I of the illness that it took a few minutes to recognize what the man’s condition was. I thought then and have thought a number of times since that if you have to be struck with dementia, you’d be fortunate to have a companion as apparently concerned about you as this woman seemed to be.

But the fact is I don’t know what their life together was really like. My suspicion is that it was not nearly as idyllic as my brief glimpse of them suggested.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.