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Shakespeare’s line about “second childishness and mere oblivion” – the last of the seven ages of man bleakly proclaimed by Jacques in As You Like It – might come back to you watching this. This very moving and profound documentary, from director Kristof Bilsen and executive producer Kirsten Johnson (Dick Johnson Is Dead), is about dementia, dementia care, the globalised market in compassion and what society deems to be woman’s work.
My colleague Charlie Phillips enthused about this film in 2019 and I can only agree. It is a deeply affecting portrait of what it means to be a professional caregiver; and what it means for both patient and nurse to be separated from their families by fate, biology and market forces.
Pomm is a nurse at a specialist-care residential facility for people with dementia in Chang Mai in northern Thailand. The patients are from German-speaking countries and the facility is owned by a Swiss national, Martin Woodtli, who is married to a Thai woman. His economic model is what you might call “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”: the cost for the European families is about half what it would be in their own countries. Pomm earns a solid wage but she must live at the facility, four hours’ drive away from her children, who are cared for by her elderly mother and also by her partner, from whom she is separated.
The movie begins by showing Pomm’s heartwrenching sadness at the loss of an elderly patient called Elisabeth, whose family arrive for her Buddhist funeral (there is evidently no question of taking the body back to the home country); then Pomm prepares for a new arrival to take Elisabeth’s place. This is Maya, from Switzerland, who has developed dementia at the terrifyingly early age of 57 and whose husband and grownup daughters can no longer cope.
Maya’s family are shown explaining, matter-of-factly, that this isn’t a matter of callousness, but rather their unselfish renouncing of the instinct to be close to their mum in order to place her where she will receive better care. Is that really what they think? Who will ever know? But their own suppressed sadness, managed with a spirited focus on cheerfulness and positivity, is clear enough.
And so begins the long, difficult business of acclimatising the bewildered Maya to her sudden, surreal shift to Thailand, with landscape so different from Switzerland. Like Elisabeth, she is initially told she is on “holiday”, which may help with the transition or simply add to the confusion. Maya can speak to her husband via Skype – apparently in Martin’s office – but clearly she does not understand what is happening.
Pomm becomes a mother to Maya but also, poignantly, a kind of daughter+, with the intimacy and gentleness of her care. Meanwhile, she is alienated from her own mother and children, a dynamic happening in a have/have-not parallel with Maya’s extended family. Pomm can see what we can: that she is imprisoned in a second-generation care loop. Her mother must look after her kids while she earns a living – and when her daughters are old enough, they might well take a similar job in Thailand (or maybe domestic service in the Middle East), while Pomm looks after their kids. So it goes on. And who will look after Pomm if she gets dementia?
This is a film that puts tough questions before us in a startlingly contemporary context, which has been created by capitalism. For the dementia patients and their families, Thailand might well seem like an antechamber to the next world, or maybe even the afterlife itself. But for the Thai people, it is nothing so exotic, and it is harrowing when Pomm bursts into tears at the end, as if intuiting all the sadness in the air that none of the grownups are allowed to acknowledge.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Mother review – a heartbreaking inquiry into the cost of dementia | Film