Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A portrait of dementia

Lindsay Ripley
Dallas, Texas, United States

Photo by Thulfiqar Ali on Unsplash

A few months ago, I watched The Father, a film with Olivia Colman in a main role and Anthony Hopkins as the titular father. Hopkins plays Anthony, a character who bears Hopkins’ own name because writer and director Florian Zeller wrote the part imagining Hopkins in it. Like Hopkins, now eighty-four, Anthony is unavoidably aging. Unlike Hopkins, who still has the presence to lead a movie, Anthony is already experiencing symptoms of dementia. Throughout the film, he descends further into this abyss.

The movie made me think of my ninety-year-old grandfather, who had been declining for years. A man who once stood over six feet tall and played college football was now so stooped and shriveled that he was shorter than me, an average female. A year after his wife of sixty-seven years died, what was left of his mental acuity slipped away.

He would wake in the night looking for my grandmother, physically attacking others when they would not let him search for her. Or he would seem unaware that she had ever existed and declare his undying love for his sitter, a woman one-third his age, whom my family paid to look after him. Parts of him were still intact—some physical strength, a sense of attraction—despite a breakdown of other fundamental components. In moments of lucidity, when he remembered that his wife had died and he saw what his life had become, he did not want to live. He begged my mother to let him die.

The brilliance of The Father is that it is told from Anthony’s perspective. What does a man experience when his brain has betrayed him? In one scene, Anthony walks into his own living room to find a man sitting on the couch reading a newspaper. Who is he? How did he get into my home? Is he a threat?

People disappear between one room and the next. Anthony’s watch is constantly disappearing from his wrist and turning up in odd places. The caretaker must be trying to steal it. One memorable sequence is circular, beginning and ending with the same event.

A viewer can never fully understand the movie’s storyline because it does not make sense. If you are not willing to accept that the narrator is unreliable, just as Anthony as the narrator is not, there is no logical answer. Anthony behaves as if his cognition were still intact; it is the world around him that is falling apart—“this nonsense is driving me crazy.”

My mother drove four hours roundtrip to visit Granddad two or three weekends a month. My grandfather, like Anthony, went through many caretakers because of how he treated them. My mother ran out of sick days at work. Exhausted from traveling back and forth, she once fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into a light pole, and totaled her car. Miraculously, she was not physically injured.

Also, like Anthony, Granddad was once an imposing figure with a capacity for cruelty. Anthony constantly bemoans that one of his daughters never visits, and does not remember that she died in an accident. When his other daughter tries to gently remind him who the caregiver is and why a new woman is in their home, he undermines her. “My daughter has, um, a tendency to repeat herself.”

My mother was not the daughter who stayed close to home, was prominent in the church, became a teacher. Instead, she ventured out, called herself a secular humanist, and married a man Granddad did not approve of. While he often did not know where he was or what was real, he remembered to not forgive my mother for those affronts.

I recommended the movie to my mother, who said it was hard to watch but also called it “quite amazing. It helped me understand a bit of what my dad is going through. I remember him getting me aside a few years ago and saying, ‘There is something going wrong with my brain.’ And he was so scared.”

A few weeks later, while at work one Sunday morning, I received a text saying that Granddad was especially agitated. Could we call and soothe him? I did not call. A little later, I learned he had died. Presumably he aspirated—a common end to mental anguish when lack of control extends to the physical body.

Near the end, the movie shows Anthony opening his bedroom door to find himself in the hallway of a nursing home. Has he been in a nursing home this whole time? In a moment of severe regression, he breaks down crying, saying, “I want my mommy.” Finally, he reflects on his situation: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.” He is a fading tree, crumbling away before a winter he will not survive.

When trying to check in with my mom’s emotions after her dad’s death, she reassured me “That wasn’t him. I said goodbye to him a long time ago.” Anne left Anthony in the nursing home and moved to Paris. Before she left, she dreamed that she suffocated her father with a pillow. He was too frail to resist.

LINDSAY RIPLEY is an internal medicine physician at a county hospital in Texas. She has been published in D magazine, Journal of Graduate Medical Education, The Smart Set, and multiple medical blogs. She is also currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Antioch University in LA.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 3 – Summer 2022

Spring 2022




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