Film and television are increasingly turning to the subject of dementia with the potential to influence and inform the attitudes of a new generation, says Australian film critic and writer Rose Capp.
Research has shown that contact with a person with dementia reduces stigma and improves understanding of the disease. However, emerging research in Australia and overseas suggests that viewing positive media representations could be just as powerful.
Ms Capp, who is undertaking her PhD on the impact of mainstream depictions of dementia on Australian audiences, told Australian Ageing Agenda that it was important to assess the effects of popular culture on public awareness and opinion of dementia and, in particular, on young people’s attitudes.
Coinciding with greater awareness, she said on-screen depictions of the disease had increased significantly over the past 20 years and a new wave of film and television offerings including Still Alice, The Iron Lady and Robot and Frank had featured dementia prominently on-screen.
She said these films represented a considerable break from the negative stereotypes and harmful or alarmist depictions perpetuated in the past and instead were characterised by more considered and complex portrayals of the lived experience of dementia as well as by clinical accuracy.
Importantly, many of new works have been personally-inspired by writers, producers or actors with firsthand experience of the disease, a phenomenon that will increase with the rising incidence of dementia.
Ms Capp said popular commercial films with wide appeal and successful box office numbers have the potential to reach and influence mass audiences.
Hollywood blockbuster Still Alice, which is set for cinematic release in Australia this month, stars Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart and features a main character dealing with a diagnosis of early onset dementia.
Ms Capp said this is an important film for the genre because it speaks to a large mainstream audience about the topic of dementia. “The film talks about genetic testing and the ramifications of that. It deals with how different family members respond to the illness including the Alice character herself and it tries to depict what it feels like to have the disease and the struggle with confusion, memory loss and fatigue.”
She said the film’s depiction of the neurocognitive testing on-screen was accurate and well researched and significantly, the filmmakers engaged expert consultants to ensure the fidelity of the story’s portrayal.
A commitment to clinical accuracy was also a hallmark of the successful portrayal of dementia through the character of Ted Taylor in the popular Australian TV series Packed to the Rafters, which ended in 2013.
Inspired by his own mother’s experience of dementia, actor Michael Caton took the idea for his character’s diagnosis and progression with the illness to the show’s scriptwriters.
Ms Capp said the storyline was explored sensitively and accurately over several seasons and covered substantive issues such as symptoms of dementia, diagnostic testing as well as treatment options and admission to residential aged care. “It was a very impressive exploration of the illness and when you look at audience ratings for the show – there was still 1.5 million people watching that show every week right until the end. The potential impact of that was very significant.”
As in film, the subject of dementia has been explored in a range of TV genres such as the Australian landmark comedy Mother and Son, Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys, Derek, the new series from British comedian Ricky Gervais, as well as popular American dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal.
Through its long form narrative, Ms Capp said TV can achieve a more considered and detailed examination of dementia that can be explored over many episodes and even seasons.
‘Dementia on the margins’
While there is an increasing number of films and TV series where dementia is front and centre, Ms Capp said brief or peripheral depictions of dementia in popular culture could be just as influential.
Dementia has received increased attention in youth dominated mainstream American cinema, having minor but potent references in films such as the romantic comedy Friends with Benefits and sci-fi movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
“These films have potentially as much influence, even if it is only a couple of lines or a small scene, in terms of reaching a broader audience and saying something to a youth demographic that might have no contact with someone with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Ms Capp.
She said these insightful and sensitive depictions are successful because they “fly under the radar” but nevertheless resonate with an audience.
Film and health education
Ms Capp said constructive representations of dementia on-screen also have the potential to be used in a pedagogical context in the training of health professionals and aged care workers.
“We need to work with the forms that people are familiar with and mainstream films and popular culture still cuts through in a way that other things may not,” she said.
Ms Capp has combined a strong interest and passion in both ageing and film to her area of research. In addition to lecturing in cinema studies, Ms Capp is also a registered nurse with 30 years experience in the aged care sector.
Despite the growth of well-observed and accurate depictions of dementia on the big and small screen, popular culture is littered with examples of misleading, negative and harmful representations of dementia that accentuate public fears about the disease and its consequences.
For example, dementia is still the subject of nightmarish horror films and thrillers – including most recently in M. Night Shyamalan’s forthcoming film Sundowning.
Hollywood also resorts to the repeated trope of giving a character with dementia moments of lucidity.
Despite its popularity, Ms Capp said Nick Cassavetes’ 2004 film The Notebook starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling is a misleading portrayal of dementia.
“The Notebook has been incredibly unhelpful in a lot of ways in depicting this nostalgic view that with dementia you can snap out of it and have this incredibly powerful moment or moments of lucidity that makes everything else worthwhile,” she said. “It’s not as deleterious as the really negative and alarmist stereotypes that you would see on-screen five or 10 years ago, but it’s misrepresentative. The risk is people will see it and think that is the way it always is.”
While a significant shift in the representation of dementia is taking place, Ms Capp said there is still a long way to go before misleading and negative depictions are a relegated to the history books of cinema. The commercial underpinning of the film and TV industry is one impediment to a fully accurate and complex portrayal of dementia on mainstream screens, she said.
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Tackling dementia on screen: Rose Capp’s top film and TV picks
Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley
The Iron Lady (2011) directed by Phyllda Lloyd
After the Deluge (2003) Australian telemovie directed by Brendan Maher