Tuesday, May 1, 2012

There is still time to catch this BBC programme on iPlayer, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01gvt26/Louis_Theroux_Louis_Theroux_Extreme_Love_Dementia/), which was originally aired last Thursday, April 26.

And I think I recommend it, with some reservations.

This is the second in a series titled ‘Extreme Love’ (the first dealt with autism). I did wonder about the title, specifically the word ‘extreme’, which implies something of the greatest and highest degree, something that exceeds what is ‘normal’, or our expectations of ‘normal’. For me, the use of this adjective alongside ‘love’, in relation to dementia, particularly for families and carers, is that something extraordinary (and often unrealistic) is often expected of them as they try to cope with an ‘extremely’ difficult and impossibly tragic situation.

Theroux is in Phoenix Arizona, the capital of ‘retirees’, and of those with dementia, and which as a result is experiencing an exponential increase in the numbers of retirement care facilities with specialist units for those with the condition.

We first visit one such unit, where residents receive impressive care, and where Theroux gains access to staff, and those afflicted by dementia, as well as their families. This raised a further issue for me, as those with advanced disease could not have consented to his, or our, presence. Theroux handles all interactions with the utmost sensitivity, but I still felt that I was intruding, even voyeuristic.

We next visit sufferers at home, a couple in their late 80s where the husband appears to cope amazingly well on his own with his wife’s progressive dementia. I am not sure I would call this ‘extreme love’ (I am not convinced love ever needs a superlative descriptor even), but a sense of caring, and fondness, and love was clearly evident in their relationship, which seemed to help them both get through the daunting challenges that define dementia.

Theroux also met a much younger woman, in her 40s, with dementia, who has a 9 year old daughter. Thinking about what the future holds for this family felt overwhelmingly sad and tragic. And yes, I did feel like a voyeur here too, as I knew what she did not/could not.

It was reassuring, for us the viewers most of all perhaps, that the sufferers did not appear unhappy. In fact, they seemed content, living in a moment.  True, the sufferers in the care facility repeatedly spoke of leaving, of going home. Yet, that moment and need passed too, and without any apparent distress. The greatest burden was borne by the families, the extent of whose suffering was impossible to fully gauge, and to truly connect with, as the very thought of what they are facing, and losing, is almost unbearable to contemplate and stay with.