Five days before my 96-year-old grandmother passed away, I sat in an empty theatre and watched a matinee screening of Michael Haneke’s film, Amour – a love story centred on the dying days of an elderly woman. I didn’t know my gran would die so soon and looking back, my viewing feels morbid. But that is what I felt like doing at the time: disappearing. It was autumn and the days were growing shorter. One of those Melbourne days where the grey hung over everything – I wanted to hide away in a cinema and forget my own sadness by watching a sad film.
Amour tells the story of Anne and Georges, an elderly couple living in their Paris apartment. The walls of their home are lined with books and art and photos; a piano forms the centerpiece of their lounge room. They have lived a good life. Both former music teachers, they keep their minds active by attending concerts in the evenings. Then, one morning, sitting side by side at the kitchen table, Anne becomes catatonic. Georges panics. He shouts her name and shakes her shoulders but she stares straight ahead, immovable. She is there but not there. She snaps to, but has no memory of the incident. The next time we see Anne she is being wheeled into the apartment after an extended stay in hospital. The operation following her stroke has been unsuccessful and it’s clear that she’s not long for this world.
It was a movie my mum refused to see. ‘No way,’ she said with a firm shake of the head. She’d spent three years as a live-in carer to my gran and, unlike me, saw only horror in the idea of sitting in a darkened room and reliving the experience on the big screen. I had reservations too, but I’d read the rave reviews and was struck by its title. You don’t need to speak French to know what amour means. Often, when English speakers sprinkle the word into their speech they’re referring to grand ideas of amour – wildly passionate, sweep-you-off-your-feet style romance. Haneke is using the word in a less ecstatic but more real way. Its English translation in the opening credits is, simply, ‘love’.
Watching Amour is like having the air slowly sucked out of your lungs. Often the screen fades to black and staggered breathing is all that can be heard. Time slows down in the film as we follow Anne’s every painful step, the efforts it takes for her to lift herself into bed, out of the shower, onto the toilet. Her feeble attempts to exercise, limping around the apartment with Georges at her side, shouldering, literally, the burden of her failing body. Amour is a love story of endurance, emotional and physical, and is unremitting in its depiction of ageing and decline.
In one scene their daughter drops by the apartment and, taking in the news of her mother’s ill health, is struck by a memory of her parents from when she was young. She tells Georges: Sorry if this embarrasses you, but when I came in earlier I remembered listening to you two making love when I was little. For me, it was reassuring. It made me feel you loved each other and that we'd always be together. From here the scene abruptly cuts to two workmen assembling a retractable, hospital-style bed in Anne and Georges room. They will no longer be able to fall asleep in each other’s arms. Anne will begin to soil herself overnight and Georges will have to change the sheets each morning.
Anne makes Georges promise: Don’t take me back to hospital, and this is his bind. Their daughter eventually worries about the huge toll Anne’s care is taking on her father. But by this stage Georges is adamant: She’s not going into a home.
I knew how Georges felt. She’s not going into a home. The clinical sounding ‘Aged Care Facility’ is perhaps a more appropriate name, but when faced with understaffed wards, and the barest of medical assistance, the word ‘care’ seems debatable too. In Australia, aged care is a largely privatised industry and it uniformly favours the rich. Most nursing homes require huge bonds, meaning that many patients have to sell their homes in order to move in.
‘A common phrase heard from people with dementia in residential facilities is “I want to go home”’, an Alzheimer’s Australia brochure, entitled ‘Spending Time With Your Loved One’, says. Most would rather die than end up in one. ‘Knock me over the head’ and ‘shoot me’ are just two of the instructions that my parents have issued me should they ever need to be placed in a nursing home. I don’t blame them. I remember the sense of relief I felt leaving my grandmother’s nursing home after a visit, stepping through the sliding doors and unblocking my nose from the unpleasant odours of the facility. Breathing the air back into my lungs. Is it the fear of death that gets to us? Or is it the fear of losing control, of relinquishing our autonomy?
We never told her it was a nursing home. The lie we clung to was that it was a respite centre. ‘I want to go home,’ she’d say and we’d shift uncomfortably at her bedside and try and reassure her that yes, yes, once you’re feeling better, it’s only temporary, before changing the subject. We’d had little choice but to place her there. She was deteriorating rapidly and my mother could no longer physically and emotionally look after her. On top of my own guilt I worried about my mum’s; I was largely a spectator to the slow demise of my grandmother’s health while mum bore the brunt of her care and assistance, like so many women before her.
We tried to make her sparsely furnished single room as homey as possible, arranging framed family photos, replenishing her favourite chocolate box on her bedside table and installing a television at the head of her bed. Gran and I watched a lot of TV together when I was growing up. The ABC was a fixture of our viewing schedule and I developed a fondness for the station’s many British imports, shows that could affectionately be called ‘geriatric comedies’. Keeping Up Appearances, One Foot in the Grave and As Time Goes By were some of my gran’s favourites. One Australian show made the list: the eighties sitcom Mother and Son.
Here is a synopsis of the pilot episode: Arthur (Gary McDonald) moves in with his mother Maggie (Ruth Cracknell) and they quickly develop an odd couple-style relationship. Arthur is worried that the burden of looking after mum is negatively impacting on his love life. His unsympathetic brother suggests placing her in a home – most likely to shirk off any responsibility which might eventually be passed his way. When Arthur plucks up the courage to tell his mother about his plans, her face darkens. He tries to cheer her up, promising her that the nursing home will be like a luxury hotel where she’ll be waited on hand and foot.
The show’s central punchline was that dementia is funny, a sort of don’t-the-elderly-do-the-darndest-things; an ’80s humour which has since dated. But the jokes were meant with a warm touch and it was easy to forget that Cracknell and McDonald weren’t really related, given their easy on-screen affection. The now-deceased Ruth Cracknell plays the role with good humour (the actress, at age 58, was far from elderly when she appeared in the pilot). Maggie’s forgetful behaviour, like putting food out for a cat who died long ago or arranging a bouquet of flowers in the toilet bowl instead of a vase, is followed by a robotic chorus of canned hoots.
But there’s nothing funny about dementia. Not if you see it up close, far away from the lights and cameras. I wasn’t laughing at my gran when she couldn’t remember what day it was, or how to button her blouse or how to brush her teeth. All my life I knew my gran as a proud woman: a woman who looked after everyone, who put herself last. I am thankful she never forgot me or my mum. But that came with other consequences: she wasn’t able to forget where we had placed her.
Days in nursing homes are short; everything is in a permanent state of winding down. Lunch at 11am, dinner at 4pm. The nights are long. Sleeping pills offer respite. To while away the daylight hours, residents at my gran’s facility were routinely parked in front of the large plasma screen in the lounge room. This is why we placed a television in gran’s room – to maintain her privacy and keep her happy. But perhaps TV is a bit of a cop out. In her Quarterly Essay, ‘Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly’, author and physician Karen Hitchcock’s makes the point that ‘we would be outraged if a child-care centre sat its charges in a room in front of a television for ten hours a day. Even in the later stages of dementia, people remain capable of challenge, engagement, creativity and love’.
And it’s this lack of engagement which is perhaps one of the saddest realities of older age. There’s an unsettling telescoping of time that takes place between infants and the elderly. I often felt frustrated with my grandmother’s ageing mind and body in her later years: Why are you so old? Why can’t you just move faster? Why can’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you? But no one blames a baby for being unable to bathe themselves, or eat their food, or speak in full sentences.
People want to hold babies, touch them, talk to them. People keep their distance from the elderly. That’s because many of the stereotypes we hold about the elderly are true: they’re incontinent, they drool and they have a tendency to play with their food. What is sweet in a newborn is frightening in a senior. So we leave them to sit on couches and stare vacantly into space. We’ll never end up like that, we tell ourselves. We’ll never grow old. More and more I’m stumped by the exaggerated cries of ‘I’m getting old!’ among my friends as they advance another year into their twenties. I can’t talk, though. I say it often enough myself.
By the end of her long life, it was impossible to sustain a proper conversation with my gran – not without raising my voice until it turned hoarse, or repeating myself ad nauseam. And even then she could only understood snatches of what I was saying. So we’d pass the time in the same old way we used to, by watching a lot of TV together (I always made sure she had her glasses on so she could read the closed captions). One of the last times I visited her we channel-surfed, settling on an ABC documentary that I was only half-watching. Entwining my fingers with hers, and looking over at her in the bed, I saw a smile spread across her face. Holding someone’s hand can be one of the most intimate ways of talking to them. It’s also the easiest way to talk to someone when you don’t know what to say. We stayed that way for an hour or so. Dusk fell and I left.
The nursing home in Mother and Son is comically over the top but there’s truth in the humour. The matron of the home is depicted as money-grubbing and duplicitous. They park Maggie in a bed and then ignore her, while her roommate sits glued to the TV. Maggie has the last laugh, though. The final scene of the episode shows Arthur back at home, unexpectedly opening the door to his mother, who theatrically bursts in, exclaiming That was the worst holiday I ever had! A smile spreads across his mouth, and with a shake of his head his eyes seem to say, Oh, Mother! And it’s clear she’s home for good.
The ending of Amour offers a far bleaker catharsis. Anne suffers another attack and is visibly in pain. Georges sits by her bed, stroking her hand, eventually calming her down. Then, he grabs a pillow and smothers her in a final act of love. In his wild grief, he lays a garland of flowers around her body and tapes up the outside door of her bedroom, allowing her a final peace.
In her essay, Hitchcock suggests that rather than experience a slow demise in a nursing home or hospital, what we all long for is for a ‘Hollywood death’ in our own beds – something tasteful and symbolic, much like the celebrated closing sequence of HBO drama Six Feet Under. But narrative closure rarely comes to us. My grandmother’s heart stopped beating one morning as her carer was helping her get dressed. There was no warning, no time to say goodbye. Hithcock reports that on average residents live in nursing homes for three years. Gran had been living in the nursing home for three months.
There’s no soundtrack over the end credits of Amour so that day in the cinema I sat in silence until the screen went black and the house lights flicked on. When I stepped back into the autumn chill, I let my feet carry me down Collins Street, my eyes too stung with tears to see properly, like a camera slightly out of focus. By then it was dark and I was trying not to bump into the other people walking towards me. I wasn’t wearing a warm enough coat and I felt a strange sensation overcome me.
People with dementia may become more confused in the afternoon or early evening. Sundowning is what they call it. The cause is unknown but sundowning is likely related to a lack of sensory stimulation after dark. Symptoms include restlessness and disorientation. Whenever I try to imagine myself at my grandmother’s age, I feel a similar sensation wash over me. I feel a strange disassociation from the person I am now and the person I may one day be.
When I recall my grandmother’s death, I can’t help but recall Haneke’s film as well. What’s logical and comforting in a film is also what’s terrifying in life: the beginning, the middle, the end. To calm her during moments of distress, Georges tells Anne stories from his youth. Georges, speaking nostalgically about a film he watched as a child, a film which made him cry, tells Anne: “I don’t remember the film but I remember the emotions.” The truth is that I’ve forgotten a lot of what happened to my grandmother in those final months, but I do remember the feeling – of seeing her there and leaving her there for the last time. Holding her hand before they took her away. Those memories are, to me, the definition of love.