Alzheimer’s and Dementia in the Media
Many of us will have an understanding of Alzheimer’s, either through work, in our personal lives, or from the media. An estimated 1 in 16 people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in their lifetime, and with this figure increasing, it’s really important to have a good understanding of the condition so we can better support people with a diagnosis.
If you don’t personally know someone with Alzheimer’s, your understanding may come from how it’s shown in the media. Often, older characters with dementia in film or TV are used for comic relief and the audience is encouraged to find their forgetfulness funny. In reality, Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, and whilst memory loss is a huge part, there are many other symptoms that people might not be aware of. For example, people can experience hallucinations, lose their sense of smell, or communicate non-verbally.
One example of this is in the TV show Shameless, where the family collect an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s from a care home and convince her that she is their late Aunt Ginger to avoid legal trouble. ‘Aunt Ginger’ claims that she remembers their house as her own, tells contradicting stories from her past, and often repeats back what has been said to her. There is no insight into any part of her real life, and she does not complain or appear upset. In reality, taking someone with dementia into an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people and telling them they should remember it would likely cause confusion and distress. Of course, the events in Shameless are not meant to be accurate, but it is possible some viewers will come away with the idea that people living with dementia are often completely unaware of their surroundings, and are content to go along with whatever scenario they are in. This is not the case.
Wilshaw House, a Creative Support service, have been supporting people with dementia for many years. They said that familiarity and comfort are incredibly important to the people they support, and they make sure to understand their routines and know what each person likes. “We’ll stock fridges with food they like or recognise” said the team. Kat, a Senior Extra Care Worker at St George’s Court, said that “the best thing for our residents is using their name, they recognise it because it’s been said to them their whole life. Say their name and they recognise you, and know that they know you.”
In the final season of the series, Shameless’ main character, Frank, develops alcoholic dementia. This is shown very differently to Aunt Ginger’s experience. Frank had been the central character of Shameless for 10 years, and so viewers are more likely to sympathise with him and care about his struggles. Frank’s forgetfulness is rarely used for humour, and instead focuses on showing his distress and confusion. After wandering the city at night, he tries to reach his home but repeatedly gets lost. The camera would often pull away from a close-up of Frank walking home to reveal that he was actually in a different place than he had thought. This example from Frank’s point-of-view is likely to inspire empathy from viewers, as the programme attempts to show what it is like to be disoriented. By showing viewers the reality of what living with a type of dementia is like, it moves us away from the idea that people with the condition are simply docile and confused, as presented in the show previously with Aunt Ginger.
It is important to discourage harmful stereotypes and instead focus on how we can understand how the person may be thinking or feeling. “You need to remember that people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s are people, not their condition” says Wilshaw house. “They are human beings who deserve to be treated how you would want to be treated.”
‘Still Alice’, a 2014 drama film, has been praised for its accuracy. The story follows a professor who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s after her 50th birthday. She becomes lost searching for the bathroom in her own house and struggles to recognise her own daughter. In a Telegraph article, a group of people living with dementia reacted to the film. Keith, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s aged 54, said “It captured how dementia crept up on me and how it knocked my self-esteem. It captured how insidious the disease is, how it can subtly eat away at you.” However, Alice’s decline happens in under a year, as by the end of the film she is mostly non-verbal. “Her decline happens so quickly,” Keith said. “I found that very difficult to come to terms with.” In reality, it can take as long as 10 years for Alzheimer’s to fully develop.
Julianne Moore, who plays the character Alice, reflected on the wider understanding of Alzheimer’s beyond the film. “I don’t think there’s enough information [about Alzheimer’s]. I think an idea still stands that Alzheimer’s is all about memory. One of the things I found is that people often simply feel lost.” Kat from St George’s Court also commented “The stigma around it is just memory loss, we need to do more.” As the area of the brain that deals with emotion is later affected, there can also be behavioural changes as people have less control of their feelings and their ability to express them. “I’m much more emotional” Keith says. “I have a lot of foggy days and a lot of sunny days.”
Although the media representation of some types of dementia can offer a glimpse into the condition and raise awareness, it may not be fully reflective of people’s experiences. Organisations such as Alzheimer’s UK have lots of accurate information on their websites to help support people who have been diagnosed, and also for people who would like to learn more. By improving our understanding of Alzheimer’s and dementia, we can better support and empower people to live the best quality of life that they deserve.
To read more information on Alzheimer’s, including our September articles on the differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia, about dementia-friendly housing, and how to have dementia-friendly conversations, visit the page below: