It Is Not Over Yet

Posted on April 29, 2021 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 30, 2021
Copyright First Hand Films 2021

One image I will remember best from “It Is Not Over Yet,” a documentary about an innovative care center for people with dementia, is the place settings. They reminded me of the good work of the Little Brothers of the Poor and Elderly, who always bring a flower and a cloth napkin when they deliver meals to people in need, because they know that those they help deserve these small touches of grace to feed their spirits as well as their bodies. At the Danish home for people with memory loss called Dagmarsminde the table settings are festive and pretty, not like the utilitarian hospital-like food trays in many facilities. Founder May Bjerre Eiby tells a group that her first job was in such a facility, all drab colors and bad smells. She became a nurse, determined to do better, but as she was saving money to create Dagmarsminde her own father became a resident of the facility where she first worked. They left his meals in his room, not understanding that he could not feed himself. He died there, she says, from neglect.

No one is neglected at Dagmarsminde, where their building principle is that “compassion is medicine.” While the average number of medications for residents in assisted living is ten per day, at Dagmarsminde it is one. Instead of medication to dull their perception, or, as in the case of one new resident, medication still being prescribed long after its ability to affect the patient was exceeded, leaving only the side effects, the residents at Dagmarsminde get cake. They get attention. Most of all, they are listened to. Just because memory is fading does not mean that a person wants to feel isolated.

Like all homes for the elderly, residents die. And when they do, the staff makes an announcement, the coffin, decorated with flowers, is brought into the area where the residents gather, and they sing a song to bid their comrade farewell. Later in the movie we see the deeply compassionate “death watching,” as the staff stays near a dying woman, making sure she is reassured and comfortable.

Copyright First Hand Films 2021

This is a Frederic Wiseman-style documentary, observation without talking head experts or statistics. We might wonder, for example, what happens when they decide to take a new resident off of the three different morphine-based medications she is on, or how (as they say) they are able to provide this staff-intensive level of care without extra cost. It is impossible not to be touched by the devoted couple knowing they are nearing the end, satisfied that their lives were good and past caring about old hurts.

Those of us who have visited our own family in memory care facilities or struggled to care for them at home will not wonder whether this is a better, more humane, more loving way to treat people with dementia. We will wonder only whether, when our time comes, we can find a place like Dagmarsminde.

Parents should know that this film deals with aging, memory loss, and death. There is some alcohol and a reference to adultery.

Family discussion: If you could build a facility for memory loss patients, what would it be like? What can we do to make more places like Dagmarsminde available?

If you like this, try: “Young at Heart” and “I Remember Better When I Paint”

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Guest Post: Tara Sonenshine on Movie Portrayals of Aging

Posted on August 3, 2013 at 8:00 am

Many thanks to Tara D. Sonenshine for allowing me to post this guest commentary about the portrayal of aging in recent film:

Movies come in thematic waves.  Recently I’ve noticed many new releases about—well, getting old. Aging actors playing aging characters.  Are baby boomers running Hollywood and desperate to remind us we were born many moons ago?

But there’s a twist in these aging sagas: most of the  main characters are old men playing male caregivers taking care of aging wives.  That’s a switch! The men live longer.

Amour 2From “Amour” to “Unfinished Song,” from “Quartet” to “Still Mine,” the plots are about the sunset years…which turn out not all that golden. The Motion Picture Association of America might need a new disclaimer: BEWARE:  These movies contain scenes of physical and mental deterioration related to the aging process.”

What happened to “aging gracefully?” Aren’t we supposed to be living “longer and stronger?”

Not according to Hollywood.

In “Amour” Austrian director Michael Haneke insists we have few, if any, light moments.  Anne, a retired music teacher, endures a stroke early in the film and for two hours we watch, literally watch, as Anne grows frail and incapacitated. We move with her into a wheelchair.  Her husband is nothing short of heroic in trying to take care of her, but he ages, not very well, throughout the process of coping with end-of-life grief.  Relief comes only in imagining heaven as an upbeat alternative.

Vanessa Redgrave is stunning in “Unfinished Song” as Marion, who is dying from cancer and has only a few months to live.  Although it is not a very cheerful premise, Marion’s attitude towards life and music and her fierce dedication to sing with an elderly chorus, makes this a kind of second-chance film. But even though the movie has its uplifting moments and happy songs, the fact remains that Vanessa Redgrave weakens and dies.  Her husband, Arthur, played superbly by Terence Stamp, is the classic grumpy old man, who only lightens up in the last fifteen minutes of the film—too late, really, to enjoy the rest of his marriage to Marion.

cast-of-quartet_originalThe  most upbeat of these aging films is “Quartet” which takes place in a British retirement home for musicians. There are funny moments of elder romance and old love affairs to distract you from the fundamental reality that some of these residents don’t really want to be living in a group home but  have little choice.  But after seeing life in “Beecham House,” the British retirement home in the movie, it sure beats aging at home.

As for powerful and poignant, I’d pick “Still Mine,” a Canadian film starring James Cromwell as the 87-year old Craig Morrison, desperate to build a new house for his aging wife who is losing her memory. Genevieve Bujold is brilliant as Irene Morrison, Craig’s wife of 61 years, but you have to endure her steady decline to the point of losing her way, falling, and breaking a hip.  The best line of the film is “age is an abstraction, not a straight jacket.” Great — unless you happen to be getting old.

StillMine_Poster_450Film critics and historians will rightly point out that growing old is not a new theme.  Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth goes downhill in the 1600s over the course of the play.  At one point her Elizabethan doctor says that Lady Macbeth is “with thick coming fancies”—resembling modern day Alzheimer’s. (Shakespeare kills off Lady Macbeth with a romantic twist as she begs to be “unsexed.”) Similarly, in “King Lear” we meet an old man faced with regrets and resentment at how his daughters turned out.  He begins to decline early in the play. By the end, Lear is self-described as “a very foolish old man” whose mental prowess is fading—by his own account “not in my perfect mind.”

Growing old can be productive. In the Book of Genesis, Sarah does it—pretty well, bearing a child in her eighties and proving that with age comes wisdom. We all want to look like we imagine Sarah looked in the Bible. Good.

Perhaps the answer lies in the movie ratings.  “G” sounds good to me.  “Gleeful” and “glad” to be part of a generation that thinks “strokes” are for tennis games or golf courses.

In the end, given the choice, I’d pick youth over aging. But if old age is the only option, there are plenty of good lessons to be learned—at the movies.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  She is an avid moviegoer.
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Commentary

Still Mine

Posted on July 18, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief sensuality/partial nudity
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad themes of aging and loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 19, 2013

StillMineWhy do we spend so much time in movies watching young people fall in love? Why is the wedding so often the happy ending? “Still Mine” is a beautifully performed true-life tale of a couple who have been deeply in love for 70 years. That is a love story.

James Cromwell (“Babe”) plays Craig Morrison, a flinty, taciturn, stubbornly independent man in his 90’s who is committed to caring for his wife, Irene (the exquisitely lovely Geneviève Bujold), as she is struggling with becoming forgetful.  Their seven grown children are concerned, but Irene wants to stay at home and Craig is resolute.  He has land and he knows how to build.  When she falls down the stairs in their home, he decides he will build a new house for them on their land, something small, simple, and one-story, where he can keep her safe.

The local building authorities tell him that he is in violation of their rules.  They have no reason to believe that the structure is unsafe.  But they have regulations about the certification of lumber and various other check-list requirements that his home does not meet.  As the movie opens, he is in court, with the judge to decide whether he will go to jail for contempt, or go home to his wife.

We then go back two years to see what has led to this court appearance, in a series of sensitively understated scenes brimming with privileged moments.  It is clear that the depth tenderness between Craig and Irene is earned over a period of decades.  And it is so sweetly portrayed it will make you eager to get old.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes include aging and loss.  There is a sad death.

Family discussion:  How should families talk about end of life issues?  Do you agree with the way the Morrison’s children and grandson respond to them?  What is the best way for government authorities like the building inspectors to ensure the safety of the community but give people like Craig the freedom they need?

If you like this, try: “The Straight Story” and some of the earlier films with the immensely talented Cromwell and Bujold like “Babe,” “W,” “King of Hearts,” and “Anne of the Thousand Days”

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