Welcome to This is Getting Old: Moving Towards an Age-Friendly World, I’m your host Melissa Batchelor, and today I’ll be talking about Five Things “The Father” Teaches Us About Alzheimer’s Disease.
A friend recently reached out and asked me if I’d seen “The Father” yet with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman – Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role. I have to say, I agree with this win. The movie plot is about a daughter trying to provide care for her father living with progressive memory loss – so some form of dementia.
See what this film can teach us about providing care to a person living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia. You can learn more by checking out my podcast, “What are the Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease; Part I,” where I talk about the common symptoms or difficulties you will see in the Early- and Middle-Stages of the disease.
#1: Misplacing or Hiding Valuable or Commonly Used Items
The father has several places around the house where he hides his watch and other valuable items. The caregivers know his hiding places and redirect him to finding his watch that he accuses others of stealing. He’s suspicious and is fixated on his watch. You never know what someone will fixate on or why that object becomes so essential to them. But rather than getting upset about it, you’re better off addressing the underlying emotion being shared at the time – whether it is anxiety or worry – rather than getting into a fight with them about how they are wrong.
#2: Mood Swings When Confronted With a Mentally or Socially Challenging Situation
The father has angry, explosive outbursts with his caregivers. He’s run 3 of them off in the film before the 4th one arrives. I’d recommend reviewing my podcast, Seven Tips for Managing Behaviors in Alzheimer’s Disease, How to Manage Anger and Aggression, and How to Manage Repetitive Behaviors. His behavior is driven by trying to control the situation and having trouble communicating with his caregivers. He is frustrated when words don’t work, and you’re experiencing brain failure, angry and aggressive non-verbal behavior to try to get his way.
#3: Loss of Orientation to Time, Then Place, and Eventually Person
I think it was a great play to have this character fixated on his watch. He is already disoriented to time and place, in that he believes he is in his flat when he hasn’t lived there for years. Before the end of the film, he’s not sure who he is anymore, and his caregiver has to tell him what his name is. By this point, he is institutionalized and is progressing in the disease.
The film doesn’t show his character with the functional losses that go with this disease – meaning he can still walk and is getting around. In real life, the cognitive and operating losses will be in tandem – although they will occur at different decline rates for other people.
#4: Personality and Behavioral Changes
I’ve mentioned before that you may see delusions, hallucinations, and suspiciousness in previous podcasts. Still, this film plays them out in a way that’s much easier to understand than these labels.
First, let’s talk about his delusions – a delusion is a firmly held false belief. Throughout the movie, the Father insists he is living in his own home, insists that nothing is wrong, and cares for himself. Essentially, the underlying emotion here is feeling a loss of control and that deep-rooted part of us who wants to be independent and autonomous. No matter what evidence is presented, he doesn’t change his belief, so his caregivers keep trying to have a logical conversation with an illogical person – due to brain failure. So as a caregiver, I don’t recommend frustrating yourself with presenting evidence over and over.
Secondly, his hallucinations appear to be both visual and auditory hallucinations for the Father in this film. Hallucinations are hearing, seeing, smelling, or feeling things that are not there. For example, he hears a voice and follows it.
#5: Personality and Sexuality
I will tell you that while this is an excellent depiction of what happens with brain failure, if you’ve seen one person with dementia, you’ve visited one person. So many aspects of this man’s personality shine through – the essence of who he was as a human being without the filter he may have had as a younger person. From idealizing his younger daughter, making cutting remarks to the older one, becoming very romantic with a caregiver who reminds him of someone he once knew…all of these things make up who he was as a person.
So overall, I think the film is an accurate portrayal of this one man’s journey down the slippery slope of Alzheimer’s Disease. I have other thoughts about the caregiver interactions with him – but I will save those for another podcast. Several exchanges could have been handled differently to prevent and modulate his behavior….but that’s beef for another day.
Congratulations to Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton for an excellent Screenplay and Sir Anthony Hopkins on his Oscar nab! It was also great to see Olivia Williams again – I still love her from Rushmore back in the day – and Olivia Coleman portrayed the genuine emotional toll this disease takes on family caregivers and their lives.
Leave me a comment below if you have other thoughts about this film’s portrayal of dementia – and thanks for tuning in!
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (‘96) and Master of Science in Nursing (‘00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I truly enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults. I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home and office visits) then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer.
I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing (2011) ) and then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor. My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 and led to me joining the faculty at George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor where I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
Find out more about her work HERE.