This evening I watched the film “The Father” – a drama that follows an elderly man’s experience of dementia.
The film is masterfully done and its artfulness consists in the way in which the disorientation and confusion of memory loss is simulated for the viewer.
Take a look at the trailer:
This film caused me to wonder: Why do Alzheimer’s and dementia happen specifically? I don’t mean biologically and physiologically, but rather existentially. What does it mean for humans to be the kinds of beings who, at the end of a long, successful, flourishing life can sincerely ask, “Who are you?” and “Who am I?”
Yes, there are many other ways in which our bodies and minds decline and deteriorate as we age. Yet, what does it mean for them do so?
When I was in university, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Hans Jonas who, in his various works sought to make “an existential interpretation of biological facts.” What a wonderfully precise sentence, and I apply it here to dementia.
What might it mean to make an existential interpretation of cognitive disorders and memory loss?
Let us consider for a moment that memory loss is not what must happen. It could have been otherwise in the universe. But among real human persons living in this world, this is a particular vulnerability faced by many, many people as they age. And, it is something experienced in a unique way by those who love and accompany them, too.
The loss of memory and identity and the confusion about even the most intimate relationships are heartbreaking realities to experience and observe. The tragedy of it can seem overwhelming and the senselessness of it can (and does) lead some people to prefer a premature death to suffering this phenomenon.
What, then, is our existential interpretation?
Wherein lies the meaning amidst such dizzying loss?
The film, somehow, is deeply poignant and tender.
I think it is so because it shows how we cannot really know or even be ourselves without each other. Even amidst the pain and confusion of memory loss, relationships – when they persist – remain the thread of coherence, whether each person knows it or not.