Three of my friends are going through some very difficult times. One is suffering from dementia and has not had a meaningful conversation with his family in five years. Another has lost all his long-term memory and can only relate to what is happening in the present moment. He has no recollection of what happened five minutes earlier. My third friend has a form of Parkinson’s that primarily affects his vision. He cannot read a book or look at a photograph and identify the word or the picture. As an academic, books were his life and he is now frustrated that he can no longer read normally. Images of these dear friends surfaced as I watched the sad but engrossing film, The Father, which depicts a man descending into dementia and how it affects his family.
The movie opens as Anne visits her father after he has dismissed his current caretaker. Anthony has dementia and cannot remember important life events and even where he places his treasured possessions like his watch. Instead of admitting his problem, he blames the caretaker for stealing his timepiece.
His confusion becomes more manifest when Anne informs her father that she will be moving to Paris to share an apartment with her new boyfriend. She loves her father and treats him with dignity, but she can no longer place her life on hold. Anthony cannot understand why Anne is leaving since he thinks Anne is married to James and residing in London. In fact, she has been divorced from James for five years.
As the narrative progresses, we become increasingly aware that Anthony refuses to accept the truth of his cognitive decline. He continues to be hostile to caregivers and still speaks about a deceased younger daughter as if she were still alive. When he finally enters a nursing home, he experiences a lucid and sobering moment that starkly reminds him of his inability to understand the real world around him. His daughter has moved to Paris and he feels emotionally adrift and confused.
Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, speaks about the importance of giving respect to an elderly person even if he is no longer behaving like a rational adult. It is important to preserve a person’s dignity at all costs, especially when so little of it left. She writes: “we need to keep seeing the human being inside the shell. Just as, with adolescents, we need to see past the defiant, hostile exterior to the scared small child inside, so too we need to look beyond the memory loss and diapers and other infirmities to the (once vibrant) human being trapped within. That person deserves to live out the remainder of his or her life with their dignity intact. And it is our job – their children, their spouses (God forbid), their friends, to make sure it happens.”
She continues: “We are very careful to treat the body with respect after someone passes away. Surely this applies double to the person while they still live. We don’t forfeit our humanity when we enter a hospital (although the institutional nature of the environment certainly encourages that) or are struck with an illness.”
The Father does not send a direct message about how to treat the elderly and infirm. Rather, it invites us to witness a man’s slow but steady mental decline and consider its consequences for the family. We see Anthony’s plight from the perspective of Anne, his daughter, who treats him with dignity, but who needs to go on with her own life. In the end, the film suggests that love for father must be balanced with love of self. Anne does not abandon him totally, but she needs to lead an independent life. The Father presents a vivid image of a man losing his grip on reality and the ripple effects of that on his family. There are no facile solutions to this inevitable tragedy.