‘What They Had’ will resonate with dementia caregivers

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I saw an excellent movie recently that I wanted to share with others who are or have been dementia caregivers. The movie is called, “What They Had,” and it has a great cast, starring Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Robert Forster and Michael Shannon. The film has a fairly simple plot: matriarch Ruth’s dementia is getting progressively worse, and the family is drawn together to figure out the next steps.

Those of us who have been dementia caregivers know what’s coming next, to a certain extent. The family’s internal dynamics are stretched to their breaking points as they each approach the “solution” to caring for the woman they love who is losing her mind and memories of them.

What is remarkable about the film is how realistically it depicts the challenges of a family grappling with Alzheimer’s. First-time director Elizabeth Chomko, whose grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, captures the raw and complex emotions perfectly. The movie is uncomfortable to watch in a good way, in that the plot, dialogue and acting is so realistic that you feel like you are eavesdropping into a family’s nightmare.

Watch the trailer:

I related quite a bit to the character of Nick, who is the son and brother. He’s the hands-on sibling, because he lives near the parents in Chicago, while Swank’s character Bridget is the sister who moved away to California. Nick has understandably built up some resentment and even though he comes across as pessimistic and critical, he cares deeply and understands the mother’s condition in a more realistic way than the rest of the family. I related so much to Nick’s frustration with the rest of the family who were overly optimistic or avoiding the tough decisions, as I dealt with that with my mother when making medical decisions for my father.

Bridget’s response to being thrown into a family crisis prompts her to question everything about her life, including her marriage. Danner plays the character of Ruth with heartbreaking tenderness, though there are moments of humor as well. And Forster, Ruth’s husband and primary caregiver, demonstrates a loving resilience underneath his gruff, practical exterior.

Both Danner and Swank have experienced real-life caregiving, which I think brought an extra layer of realism to their portrayals.

The film is available on video-on-demand services. (I watched it on Vudu.) It does contain a fair amount of profanity, but it seemed to be a natural fit for the characters’ personalities. If you’ve seen the movie, I’d love to know what you thought about it.

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