There’s a lot of buzz about Meryl Streep’s new movie The Iron Lady and her intimate portrayal of Lady Margaret Thatcher’s dementia. Although folks seem to agree Streep’s performance is spot on (she just won a Golden Globe*), there’s a lot of debate about whether the film is appropriate. The former Prime Minister is still alive, after all, and dementia flatters no one. The film got me thinking about the cruel stigma of illnesses that affect the mind and whether, as one reviewer said, "The Iron Lady is despicable and voyeuristic."
There is no dignity in dementia.
Remember when people used to whisper the news that someone had cancer?
“You know Aunt Millie?” they’d ask secretively, looking around to make sure no one was listening. “She has… (voice lowers, hand comes up to hide lips, the word is barely audible) cancer…”
Streep as Thatcher
As if it were Aunt Millie’s own, shameful fault she had cancer. As if somehow she were dumb enough or careless enough to catch it. Even now, cancers that affect certain body parts are treated this way—most notably those parts above the knees and below the waist. We cringe at the thought of getting colonoscopies, prostate exams and pap smears; at the same time, we make jokes about them, although usually not in “mixed company”. We are immature and embarrassed.
The same is true of conditions above the neck. Talk about stigmas! We treat emotional and psychological diseases of the brain in that same old-fashioned, self-conscious, furtive, whispery way. We don’t readily admit to others that we’re in the depths of depression or that our spouse has Alzheimer’s. We tell people we’re going to the dentist but it’s simply “an appointment” when we see the shrink.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone, peddling fast, wanting to protect my mother from the dementia stigma… hoping friends don’t know she doesn’t remember their visit last month, that she needs help managing finances and medications, that she repeats herself frequently, that it’s getting increasingly difficult to have a two-way conversation.
Our societal quest for youth and perfection make it especially challenging to embrace the aging process, even when one’s faculties are intact. “I don’t know why they call these the ‘golden years,’” my great Aunt Mary once said. “There’s nothing golden about them!”
Bette Davis is credited with saying, “Getting old is not for sissies,” and indeed it is not.
So here’s a thought: What if we all quit being sissies about dementia and just acknowledge it for what it is—an increasingly common and unprovoked, progressive illness for which there is not yet a cure? If it hasn’t already, chances are dementia will affect your family in some way. Already 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, and the number is growing. (Just this week, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced an ambitious plan that calls for a treatment and prevention plan by 2025. For more info, go to www.alz.org)
In the meantime, let’s treat people who have dementia with dignity, kindness, patience and love. Let’s end the shame and apologies. Instead of being despicable, I’d like to think The Iron Lady illustrates the way a profoundly sad disease can rob someone—anyone, in fact—of his or her intellect and reality. And let’s stop whispering. Instead, let’s scream until we find a cure.
*Streep would go on to win her third Oscar for the role.