The portrayal of dementia on TV and in the arts has undoubtedly risen since my dad was living with dementia. From major soaps to numerous stage plays, dementia – it seems – is popular subject matter.
I’m not against portraying dementia when it’s done in a fair and equitable way that, crucially, educates. When I say educates, however, I don’t mean in the usual awareness-raising way, or by opting for the predictably negative portrayal that is perhaps most closely associated with dementia on TV or in the arts.
My biggest gripe against the Oscar-winning Still Alice was the total omission of any examples that showed how Alice and her family could have lived better with simple environmental modifications. For example, signage that would have assisted Alice to get to the toilet in time in her holiday home.
My interest in the portrayal of dementia in the arts was ignited again last November when I went to see ‘Bothered and Bewildered’, one of the numerous stage plays focusing on dementia. The official synopsis of ‘Bothered and Bewildered’ says:
“This is a comedy drama about one woman’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. The play follows Irene and her two daughters Louise and Beth as the girls lose their mum in spirit but not in body.”
Comedy and dementia
Those with a keen eye on language will find that synopsis somewhat troubling, and being in the audience was certainly an uncomfortable experience for me. I’ve often debated with myself how I feel about the use of comedy in relation to dementia, and this play laid bare those internal debates again.
Whilst many others laughed, I couldn’t and didn’t throughout the whole play. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate that humour has its place in dementia care – I sometimes laughed WITH my dad during his years with dementia, but never at him.
Often people with dementia do things that to those observing them are strange – in these circumstances the first human response is often to laugh to conceal our own lack of intuition and understanding. But look beyond what you’re seeing to consider the reasons behind why a person is doing what they are doing and suddenly you think very differently.
You feel sadness that the person’s damaged brain is leading them to outward expressions that barely conceal what is likely to be an internal turmoil of acute confusion. You might attempt to try and walk in that person’s shoes to imagine how they are feeling, knowing that you can switch off from that state of mind at any time, whereas the person is living with their dementia 24/7.
Supporting family carers
The dubious comedy element in this play wasn’t my most overwhelming feeling, however. More than anything I wanted to jump on the stage and help Irene’s daughters to understand their mum better and cope better as a result.
During the play Louise and Beth were immensely frustrated with their mother, didn’t know how to handle her paranoia and hallucinations, ended up looking for their mother with the police when she’d left the house in the darkness dressed only in her nightie, and felt driven towards seeking a care home place for her.
The classic unpaid family carer scenario of trying to juggle work with caring responsibilities was also explored, with one of Irene’s daughters giving up work to try and care for her mother. The only professional support shown in the play came from a doctor, who for the purposes of the play asked far more questions than most doctors I’ve ever met. Despite this, however, he offered nothing by way of tangible practical support.
What needs to change
I accept that the portrayal of Louise and Beth’s struggles are entirely reflective of the experiences of so many families. Indeed, there were elements that reminded me of my experiences with my dad, but my frustration is that we don’t move forward from this.
In January 2020, every person with dementia and their family still cannot access universal, comprehensive post-diagnosis support, nor do they have access to their own Admiral Nurse, and most will find that care and support largely relies upon untrained and unsupported family carers until, more often than not, a crisis occurs and professional support is urgently needed.
It’s a disgraceful reality facing numerous families, and the portrayal of this element of a family’s experience of dementia in ‘Bothered and Bewildered’ is perhaps all the more striking when you consider that this play wasn’t written recently – it was first performed in October 2014, proving that so little has changed.
I’m sure that dementia will continued to be portrayed on TV and in the arts in the years ahead, hopefully not just by showing the difficulties, the frustrations and the sadness, but also by showing the environmental changes that can make a difference in someone’s home, the meaningful professional support (Admiral Nurses etc) that can enable families to cope better, and (fingers crossed) even progressive initiatives like peer support groups (DEEP and DAI) and training for family carers.
If we could have all of that, with less focus on laughing at the person living with dementia, we’d be making progress.
Until next time…