The Dementia Sufferer


The 2006 Canadian film Away from Her details the destruction of a couple’s marriage after Alzheimer’s disease quickly consumes the wife’s consciousness.  After a series of accidents caused by her disease, Fiona believes she is becoming a risk to herself and checks into a nursing home.  At the dismay of her husband, Grant, Fiona must obey the mandatory policy of not accepting any visitors for a period of 30 days.  After patiently waiting those 30 days, an eager Grant returns to the nursing home to discover that his wife has completely forgotten him and begun a romantic relationship with another resident.  Heartbroken, Grant is forced to absorb the devastating effects of Fiona’s disease as he helplessly watches Fiona push him out of her life. Alzheimer’s disease essentially renders Fiona a zombie; with a loss of lucidness, Fiona can be aptly described as “walking dead”.  Overwhelmed with insentience, Fiona transforms into a monster that no longer cares for her husband and blatantly betrays him without being obligated to feel any form of remorse.  As a society, our strongly negative reactions to dementia patients are reinforced by their comparisons to zombies in film and literature. According to Susan Behuniak, the stigmatization of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers is considered dehumanization caused by disgust and horror (70).  In her work Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag notes that we have a tendency to allege that personal psychological characteristics cause diseases.  In other words, to various extents, we blame the individual for producing the disease rather than accepting that the disease manifested on its own within the individual.  Historically, the less medical knowledge we have had about a certain disease, the more we have stigmatized it.  In the case of AIDS, society attributed the disease to unhygienic practices of the afflicted while with Alzheimer’s disease, we have a tendency to view the patients as living forms of the walking dead.  Thus, the depiction of Fiona as a zombie shames patients with Alzheimer’s disease and fuels deep-seeded stigmas.  As a cultural work, Away from Her plays upon the exact stereotypes and stigmas of illness that Sontag fights so passionately against.

Based on what I have learned throughout the Monsters in Film and Literature course, I realize that, like many of the other monstrous forms we have studied, dementia patients have been unfairly stigmatized and marginalized by society.  Our deeply rooted fears and distastes for this disease and those affected by it originate from an innate fear that we too could one day become them.  According to Sontag, any disease that remains a medical mystery is regarded by society as a moral, and sometimes even literal, contagion.  Thus, this blurring of the safety net between “we” and “them” adds considerably to our perceived monstrosity of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers.  To contain our fears of terror and disgust, we have constructed a barrier between the patients and ourselves by labeling them as zombies and other forms of the living dead.  In doing so, we have relegated them as inhuman and thus unimportant in the contexts of our society.  The prevalence of this act can be discerned in nearly every cultural work that includes a character suffering from dementia.  Cohen-Shalev and Marcus expand upon this point by revealing that most mainstream films that include such characters consign to them dialogue that is nearly completely unintelligible and of no importance to furthering the plot of the story.  The dementia patient is often written as a one-dimensional, static character whose purpose is solely to create conflict or add comic relief (Cohen-Shalev and Marcus 74).  To further distance ourselves from this perceived monstrosity of a disease, we often associate many negative character traits with Alzheimer’s disease patients, regardless of the fact that they are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions.  By painting these patients as perpetually grumpy and insane, we are essentially giving ourselves an excuse not to interact with them.  According to Sontag and the authors below who support her point of view, to combat our use of negative associations with AD sufferers, we must actively reshape our perceptions of the disease so that it is regarded as a medical malady and nothing more.  By ceasing our use of illnesses such as dementia as metaphors for death and loss of self, we can redefine our cultural perceptions of those afflicted and reintegrate them into society.


[1] Anderson, Daniel. “Love and hate in dementia: The depressive position in the film Iris.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 91.5 (2010): 1289-1297.

[2] Aquilina, Carmelo, and Julian C. Hughes. “The return of the living dead: agency lost and found.” Dementia: Mind, meaning, and the person (2006): 143-161.

[3] Behuniak, Susan M. “The living dead? The construction of people with Alzheimer’s disease as zombies.” Ageing and Society 31.01 (2011): 70-92.

[4] Cohen-Shalev, Amir, and Esther-Lee Marcus. “An insider’s view of Alzheimer: cinematic portrayals of the struggle for personhood.” International Journal of Ageing and Later Life 7.2 (2012): 73-96.

[5] Zeilig, Hannah. “Dementia as a cultural metaphor.” The Gerontologist (2013): 1-11.


One response to “The Dementia Sufferer

  1. The concept of illness or disease as monstrous is fascinating. The monster of my choice “The Doppelgänger” is also a monstrous byproduct of psychological disease or stimulation. We would naturally assume that it is the disease that is monstrous, which makes the individual monstrous; however, Sontag believes that societal judgements assign the cause of disease upon the individual’s psychological construction; as if it lays dormant within the individual psyche until the visible onset of the symptoms occur rather than the disease purely developing within the individual. Thus the individual subject of disease would be viewed as the monster rather than the disease itself. The human mind always has the possibility of monstrosity and is confirmed once the disease develops. Is it the disease that is monstrous or the mind? An interesting debate…

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