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Dementia on screen: representing a complex issue

With the recent release of "Still Alice", Director of HammondCare’s Dementia Centre Colm Cunningham shares his thoughts on the ways dementia is depicted in films.

Many filmmakers are drawn to the subject of dementia, but some films handle it better than others. In light of the upcoming Australian release of “Still Alice”, starring Julianne Moore as a woman living with Younger Onset Dementia I rewatched a few films that represent dementia. Here are my thoughts on “The Notebook”, “Iris” and “Away from Her”.

"The Notebook"

A fan favourite, "The Notebook" has some high and low points in its representation of dementia.

There are some real strengths in Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of Allie, particularly in her relationship with her husband Noah. His reading to her, even when she has forgotten who he is, is a lovely way of engaging with her. It demonstrates the importance of maintaining her identity and personal history. It becomes fraught, however, when he pushes her to remember too much. Allie’s sudden moments of clarity, when her memories all come flooding can overwhelm her and demonstrate the importance of taking things at the pace of the person with dementia and paying attention to what the person is telling us verbally and non verbally.

The scene when Allie becomes distressed and is held down and sedated is a really negative part of the film. It portrays some people’s worst fears about living with dementia, and it is something which doesn’t happen often. This scene could be used as an example of “what not to do”, and could start a discussion about what could have been done differently. We know in our own lives that people need space during an argument and Allie is not given this option.


"Iris" reminds us that dementia does not define a person.

“Still Alice” has been criticised for suggesting that dementia is more tragic when it happens to someone of higher social status and education. The same could be said of “Iris”, but this movie’s strength lies in the fact that it is based on the life of a real person. We can read about Iris Murdoch and know she is the sum of many things, including but not limited to her dementia.

One scene that stands out for me in this film is Iris attending her friend’s funeral. Faced with a lot of information about her friend’s passing that she is unable to filter, Iris breaks down and “unleashes” emotionally at her friend’s graveside. This reaction may seem confronting, but it is reasonable considering that, given her impaired memory, Iris may feel like she is hearing the news of her friend’s passing for the first time.

My only concern with this scene is that it may put people off taking a person with dementia to a funeral, or any other confronting situation. I would encourage people with dementia to go to such events if they choose.

I had similar thoughts while watching the scene when Iris tries to exit a moving car. I worried that it might discourage people to take their loved ones out for fear of putting them in danger. The negative events depicted in “Iris” run the risk of leading people watching to become overly-protective and risk averse at all costs.

"Away From Her"

"Away From Her" raises some interesting questions about residential care.

In this movie, Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman with dementia who has moved into residential care. The film deals with some important issues, particularly when Fiona begins a relationship with another resident. This is addressed in a mature and respectful way that I feel may be helpful to people experiencing this.

One issue I had with this movie was I didn’t think Fiona needed to be in residential care. She was at a point where most people would still be at home. I would encourage people with dementia to stay at home as long as they’re able and my concern is “Away From Her” might make residential care seem like the only option.

Julianne Moore has brought a real depth of understanding to her roles in the past and I’ve heard she’s done the same in “Still Alice”. I’m looking forward to seeing the film and finding out what it adds to the conversation about Younger Onset Dementia.

- Colm Cunningham

Stay tuned for a review of Still Alice from Colm, coming soon, or find out more about how we care for people living with Younger Onset Dementia.

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