Pacifica Senior Living Blog

Dementia Representations in the Media

Aug 12, 2022 8:14:35 AM / by Carly Dodd, Pacifica Senior Living

As the western population ages, the focus is shifting in media to include more storylines and characters that highlight varying degrees of memory loss. Dementia affects many individuals, and even more family members, friends, and loved ones who know someone dealing with memory loss.

Being able to see representations of dementia and relate to those going through this difficult experience can be very powerful for viewers. Ensuring these portrayals are accurate is deeply important to the understanding of these conditions and afflictions.

Unfortunately, there are still many characters, storylines and representations that perpetuate the myths and incorrect stereotypes that surround these diseases. However, there are a growing number of accurate representations. These portrayals show the reality of things like Alzheimer’s - both for the individual experiencing it, and for the loved ones and caregivers that support them.

It can be easy for filmmakers to use memory loss as a plot device. When these complex conditions are used in this way, it has a diminishing effect on our perception and is damaging our understanding of these conditions. Stereotypes often reduce people to nothing more than their disease. Still others misrepresent tools that can help those with memory loss, showing ‘cure-alls’ or miraculous recoveries that are equally damaging.

These are a few examples which have problematic depictions of memory loss:

The Notebook: Allie

While there are aspects of this portrayal that are true - for example Allie’s confusion, irritability, or dissociation from her husband and family - her ability to remember her life experiences in full when Noah reads to her can be misleading. Reminiscing and sharing memories can be a great experience for those with memory loss, but it is highly unlikely that an individual will suddenly remember absolutely everything about their life, and this can present false hope.

Similarly, her character seems to be only affected by memory loss - she cannot recognize people or faces, but is otherwise unaffected by the disease. Later stages of dementia will impact a variety of cognitive and bodily functions, and this was not portrayed at all in this case. The illness is presented more as a plot point to add to the love story of this married couple, rather than to be an accurate depiction of dementia.

Away From Her: Fiona

Away from Her is another movie that has some inaccuracies. While there are aspects of the movie that emphasize important aspects of the dementia journey (such as forgetting one’s partner and forming attachments to others), there are some glaring problems. Firstly, the main character Fiona decides for herself it is time to move to a Memory Care home.

Those with dementia often have difficulties with decisions, and are rarely aware of the severity of their condition, so this depiction of how easily Fiona (Julie Christie) decides to check in to a nursing home - and tells her husband Grant of this decision - is not realistic. The conversations and navigation around moving a loved one to a Memory Care facility can be extremely difficult, and the movie brushed over this too easily.

Some more accurate depictions of memory conditions in the media include:

Coco: Mama Coco

Coco is a magical and moving Disney Pixar motion picture. It focuses on family, the past, and following one’s dreams. Though the story centers around a young boy named Miguel, his family members play key parts in the plot. One of these characters is Mama Coco, his great grandmother, who has lost most of her memory.

We see early on that Coco doesn’t always remember what is going on. Despite this, Miguel visits with Coco daily to share his adventures, dreams and aspirations. This is a great example of a relationship between someone with dementia and a loved one - Miguel treats her with dignity, love and patience even if she doesn't always remember.

The movie also does a good job of describing triggers that can help spark memories. When an old photo falls off the family ofrenda, Coco immediately recognizes her father. Similarly, towards the end of the movie when Miguel plays her a song from her childhood, Mama Coco is able to sing along, connecting through this shared experience of music.

Music has been proven to spark memories and lyrics can even be recalled in later stages of memory loss. Though this movie does not focus directly on Mama Coco and her condition, the representation of dementia is generally accurate. The only flaw is it does not explore the experience of the caregivers or the day to day struggles that can be present - Mama Coco is simply shown as blissfully happy - if unaware.

This is Us: Rebecca

This is Us is an emotional rollercoaster of a show, which has captured the hearts of many viewers and won countless awards for its depiction of hard life hurdles, including in the character of Rebecca. Rebecca is initially diagnosed with early stages of cognitive impairment in season four of the show, and the writers do a wonderful job of handling her progressing illness.

This show takes the time needed to accurately depict Dementia with dignity and grace. The portrayal of this disease is not rushed or used as a plot device, but is a genuine and accurate portrayal of a strong woman learning to deal with increasing memory loss.

Similarly, we see the family members and how they deal with this memory loss. The three kids offer different perspectives, as Kate is able to remind her brothers that their mom is still the same person - even if she may not always remember them. Heartbreaking, honest, and deeply real, this show does a wonderful job of presenting all sides of dementia, from the care in her home, to tools such as robotic pet therapy, and sensory experiences like hair brushing and hand massages that help her kids connect with her.

Still Alice: Alice

Still Alice is one of the more well known movies about Alzheimer’s Disease. It is based on a novel of the same name, and centers around the main character, Alice Howland and her journey with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The movie is raw, and has been hailed by many as an excellent depiction of the condition. (Actor Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of an Alzheimer’s patient).

Not only does the story focus on Alice’s struggles (including those of a linguistics professor losing her hold on language) but it includes the experiences and emotional responses of her husband and children. It can be a difficult task caring for a loved one with dementia, and the movie doesn't shy away from this.

Other examples of true story Alzheimer’s movies include Iris - which shares the true story of novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley and stars both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet. It is an acclaimed film, and presents memory conditions in an accurate and moving light. Similarly, Still Mine is an emotional and careful story based on the lives of Craig Morrison and his wife Irene as they deal with the onset of dementia.

Pacifica Senior Living has a variety of Memory Care communities with compassionate and skilled caregivers. Our Pacifica family understands the difficulties and emotions associated with Dementia and other cognitive impairment conditions, and are here to help you along the way. If you have questions, or would like to tour a community, please reach out to us, or schedule a private tour to see all that we offer. Our caring team is here to help welcome you or your loved one home.

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Tags: Memory Care