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What Happens When We Can No Longer Remember

By Nancy Heller Moskowitz, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, 
AMHCA’s Public Awareness, Advocacy & Marketing Committee

Someone told me once that there three sides to any story: each participant’s recall, and the truth. This month, I bring you two examples of the story of Alzheimer’s and how it affects a relationship. The third side of the story, that of the disease itself, you can find on your own.


The first story is a film about philosopher and author Iris Murdoch and her husband, writer John Bayley, played convincingly by Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the mature couple and Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville as the younger couple. Released in 2001, the film is 90 minutes. This movie shows the story of the caregiver, which is one side of the disease.

In an initial scene, Murdoch states:

Education doesn’t make you happy. Nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free—if we are. Or because we’ve been educated—if we have. But because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears, tells us where delights are lurking, convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever, that of the mind, and gives us the assurance—the confidence—to walk the path our mind, our educated mind, offers.”

What makes this compelling quote and scene so important is that Murdoch is fully aware here, and when her mental acuity begins to decline, it is these words that haunt her in lucid moments.

Another beautiful scene sets the stage for this love story, which John Bayley told much better in the three books he wrote about their relationship than this movie does. During a bike ride through a somewhat dangerous path, Bayley shouts, “Keep still.” Iris answers, “I can’t.” When he replies, “I can’t catch up,” Murdoch encourages him to push on. This dynamic is symbolic of their marriage. Murdoch is always on the go and Baley is always trying to catch up, until she becomes ill. Then Bayley offers the greatest of gifts, that of a caregiver.

During the four years of her illness, Murdoch is shown experiencing all the stages of Alzheimer’s. Bayley initially appears to have the patience of a saint. He is determined to keep Iris at home and we see him struggle with the 
disorder that develops as he can’t cope with taking care of his wife and the house. 

During a later scene, we see another side of the caregiver, that of frustration and defeat. They are lying in bed and she is unresponsive. He screams; “I hate you, you stupid cow!” He is so angry at the disease and her lack of recognition. 

Finally, we see Murdoch leave for a residential home where she will be watched over. There is a sense of calm, although this decision took a great toll on Bayley. Placement is one of the hardest decisions a caregiver may have to make, because it means one accepts that there is no hope. All relationships need hope!

“Away From Her”

This 2007 feature film, 110 minutes long, is based on a short story by Alice Munro called, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” A much more compelling movie than “Iris,” it has equally good performances by the main characters—Julie Christie as Fiona, and Gordon Pinsent as Grant. This film is also about a couple that deals with the wife falling prey to Alzheimer’s.

In several early scenes, Fiona’s memory isn’t as sharp and her behavior is erratic; for example she puts a pan in the freezer and doesn’t realize her mistake. When her husband discovers it, he says nothing to her. Another poignant scene shows the couple at a dinner party where Fiona says to a friend; “I think I’m beginning to disappear.”

In this film, the spouse afflicted with Alzeimer’s chooses to move to a nursing facility, and we see her husband’s sadness and loss. When Grant comes to her room in the facility to say goodbye, she tells him, “I’d like to make love and then have you go. If you make this hard for me, then I may cry and never stop.” We see them in bed and when she asks him to go, he leaves reluctantly.

In just a month’s time, she has deteriorated so badly that she doesn’t remember who he is to her, though she is grateful for the books he brings her. Grant questions her behavior with another patient, Aubrey (played by Michael Moriarty). When Fiona tells him, “He doesn’t confuse me. He doesn’t confuse me at all. He’s so confused and he 
needs me,” Grant is overwhelmed.

Later in the movie we see that Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), is also bothered by the intimacy between Fiona and Aubrey. She decides to bring Aubrey home, telling Grant that it has become too expensive to keep Aubrey at the facility, when the real reason for the move is her jealousy of the friendship between these two lost souls. 

Once Aubrey leaves, Fiona takes to her bed and will not leave it. She refuses to eat or comb her hair, and nothing interests her. Grant visits Marian to ask her to bring Aubrey back and sees that Aubrey isn’t doing well either. Initially, it looks like Grant will leave the house without a positive conclusion, but then we see Marian wheeling Aubrey back into the nursing home. 

Fiona becomes aware of his return and her behavior improves dramatically. Grant asks Fiona if she remembers Aubrey. She touches Grant and tells him that he could have given up. Grant tells her that would never happen. There is a dreamy sequence and mood music prior to their hug and the film flashes back to an earlier time.

Caregiving Roles Will Prompt Discussion

Often, the healthy spouse wants to take care of the other spouse. These two films show the progression of Alzheimer’s where the caregiver may have no choice and where the patient wants to exert control over the inevitable. I found the character development better in “Away From Her” than in “Iris,” and it showed a broader picture of possibilities and reactions. 

Each film, however, can encourage much discussion within a support group for caregivers. 

Each can also help families see some of the ways to keep safe the family member who is ill, especially when the loved one doesn’t recognize family members any more.

Until next time,

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