Last night about 20 minutes into watching The Iron Lady interact with her dead husband, I leaned over to my husband and exclaimed, “Now I really understand what it was like was for your mother — she saw those things.”
This movie is about dementia, not history.
Lady Thatcher’s conversations with her husband Denis, were real to her, though she knew they weren’t. Time after time, as we sat together to eat or read, Mother would mention to my husband that her visions — that’s what Mother called them — were real enough to touch when they occurred. She, too, knew they were not real, but she could now get away from them.
By the time the movie ended, I sat quietly thinking to myself that I had just seen a rerun of the last year of his mother’s life with dementia — the confusion, the attempts to blot out things that you don’t like, the inability of the doctor to do much more than talk, the wary eyeing of the pills on the teacup saucer, the reveries over nearby photos, an unexpected feat of expressing thoughts with crystal clarity, and how music — in this case The King and I — seemed to calm and distract. Even the shots of Thatcher overhearing others talk about her, brought back memories of Mother snapping, “I’m right here,” when we discussed a treatment and forgot to include her.
Meryl Streep nailed a dementia sufferer’s perspective — with all that heartbreak and despair. The movie nailed the utter equal opportunity of these memory diseases. It doesn’t matter who you are — you are in the pool with the same odds as everyone else when it comes to developing some type of dementia.
But I felt uncomfortable, and when the credits began to roll and even had a slight tummy ache. The movie obliterated Lady Thatcher’s privacy.
Now most families, as they cope with this terrible range of brain diseases, are not shy about sharing. We certainly weren’t. Family members go to seminars, read books, share thoughts on-line, read blogs and write posts, consume articles, attend support groups, or just chat amicably with others who happen along with their memory-impaired family members. For most of us all this openness serves to keep Alzheimer’s, dementia, and all of the disease iterations out there in the open, making people realize the debilitating potential of aging. But these are small personalized interactions.
We rarely invite a group, much less the public, into our houses to see our loved one. So why make this movie now and not wait until Margaret Thatcher dies? Would anyone have considered making such a film about President Reagan before he died? In fact, we still haven’t. Why obliterate this woman’s last vestige of privacy at this time? Heartbreakingly, I believe it’s because she is a woman.
If Carol and Mark Thatcher can take any solace — and I would not blame them if they took none — this movie will make a lot more people understand the fury of dementia and it’s potential to take apart bit-by-bit and then destroy a person’s life. We can have the best health care, exercise regularly, eat well, and even reach the pentacle of power — these brain diseases don’t really care.
For those of us who have lost a family member to dementia, the movie is less of a look at contemporary British history and more like a vivid trip into our family member’s sorrowful decline.