Kate and I have enjoyed movies throughout our marriage. They’ve been especially important since her diagnosis. It gave us another bit of pleasure that was a complement to our other activities. A little over a year ago, I found that Kate wasn’t enjoying them the way she used to. Not wanting to let go of this source of entertainment, I worked a little harder to find ones that she would enjoy. Ultimately, however, we’ve been going to fewer movies. Recently, we’ve had two successes. The first was RBG, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The second was yesterday, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It’s another documentary. This one, of course, is about Mr. Rogers.
When you know that Kate hasn’t been able to follow a plot for years, you might wonder how she could enjoy a movie at all. That’s because we can easily fail to appreciate the variety of ways in which all of us derive pleasure from life. Authors like John Zeisel (I’m Still Here) and Judy Cornish (The Dementia Handbook) have sensitized me to the many ways people with dementia (PWD) still enjoy life. I had already observed that with Kate, but their writings have made a great impact on my understanding of why this is true.
In particular, Cornish distinguishes between our rational and intuitive thought. Rational thought deals with the kinds of things we learn from parents, teachers, and many others we encounter. These include the rules of behavior as well as the factual knowledge like language, history, math, spelling, names of people, places, and things, etc. Intuitive thought involves experiential learning that occurs directly through our senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. We put so much emphasis on rational thought that we underestimate the significance of what we learn experientially. I believe that is a major reason we believe a PWD has lost everything that makes life worth living. That’s a big mistake. As Cornish points out, intuitive thought provides us the ability to enjoy things like music, art, and interpret and respond to the feelings of others.
I find Cornish’s distinction between the two kinds of thought helpful in my understanding of why Kate can enjoy a movie she doesn’t fully understand. Her ability to think “rationally” has deteriorated substantially. She can’t follow a plot because that requires her to assemble pieces of information to make a coherent picture. On the other hand, she is able to experience things she likes and dislikes. She can formulate an impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg without remembering that she that she was a good student, that she was a lawyer or a Supreme Court Justice. She obviously liked what she was seeing and hearing about her but wouldn’t recall any of the specific bits of information about her.
Unlike Ginsburg, whom she didn’t recall when going to the movie, she did have some recollection of Mr. Rogers. I am sure it was a very vague memory, but she probably began with a positive feeling about him. The documentary beautifully captures Rogers’ personality and feeling for children. The very sound of his voice communicates this feeling. I have no doubt that Kate could sense this. Of course, the film contains lots of scenes of Rogers with children. She loves watching children wherever we go. Seeing the children in various situations with Rogers was appealing to her. Moreover, the things that he was doing as he interacted with them, as well as his facial expressions and tone of voice all convey important information about him. These are things that Kate could easily understand.
I should make it clear that she hasn’t lost all rational thought. She is able to understand and respond appropriately to most of the things that people say in ordinary conversation. Watching a movie, she hears and usually understands what is said; however, it is gone in seconds. That keeps her from understanding many of the events that follow. The trick for me is to select a movie that contains people and events that she can enjoy simply because of the qualities of the people and events she is seeing and hearing without having to understand “the facts.”
That is particularly easy to grasp with documentaries like RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It may be less obvious for a film like Darkest Hour. That is another movie she liked. In that case, I know that before entering the theater, she recognized that Churchill was a person of historical importance and that WWII was a major event in our lifetime. What she saw and heard in the movie conveyed that as well. Without understanding any details about Dunkirk, she was able to identify with the film emotionally. That continued ability to enjoy life experientially has allowed us to maintain our quality of life even as she loses her rational thought. I am grateful for that.