Director: Eric Gordon
Running time: 1hr 17mins
In the end, statistics are just numbers – and this means they always have an element of comfortable distance to them. For instance, 44 million people worldwide live with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia. In a world of 7 billion human beings, the true horror of that statistic is absent. Even with the qualifier that more than one-in-nine of us who live older than 65 will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and many of the world’s largest nations have ageing populations, the human devastation this will wreak is an abstract notion.
One of the things the statistics don’t convey is the impact Alzheimer’s or dementia have on the family of those afflicted. Adult social care is in tatters across the Western world, with governments unwilling or unable to invest the political and economic capital required to adequately support the previously mentioned ageing population with the end-of-life care it increasingly needs. As such, it often falls on the loved ones of those stricken by Alzheimer’s to step in, and provide that service. Often these are the spouses of those stricken with the disease – usually also in their advanced years.
Perhaps the cruellest aspect of the disease is that in this capacity, as the wives and husbands of Alzheimer’s patients rapidly become fulltime care-givers, they are denied what little time they might have had to come to terms with the situation, to ensure they can say the right kind of goodbye, and to mourn the gradual, inevitable loss of their life partner. Eric Gordon’s documentary When All That’s Left is Love is an unflinching insight into these final moments of a couple’s time together – focusing on the declining health of his father, and his mother’s often thankless heroism in caring for her husband in those final years.
When the camera joins them, Sheldon and Marilyn Gordon have lived a long and happy life in Florida. Sheldon was relatively successful as a salesman with the savvy to have cashed in on Disney World’s arrival in the state, while family Super8 shows us glorious images of the couple raising a family together. Marilyn reflects on the kind of man Sheldon was – a generous and honest individual, whose unique sense of humour could make the gravest situations seem less severe. There are glimmers of that Sheldon on display now – a deadpan kind of absurdism which means that in certain moments even his loved ones cannot be sure if he is serious or not – but for Marilyn they are little more than a ghostly reminder of what once was.
Throughout the film, Marilyn candidly talks to her son, Eric, about what life as her husband’s carer has been like for her. She talks through an ill-fated cruise vacation, where Sheldon lost control of his bowels, before his mobility scooter badly injured her leg, adding injury to insult. She talks about the endless shift she seems to be working, and how exhausted it leaves her at the end of day. When Sheldon bickers with her or issues her too many demands, she regularly states she wishes she were dead – performatively perhaps, but with a real raw edge to the comments all the same.
Possibly the lowest moment for Marilyn comes not from the demands of caring for Sheldon, however. Instead, it comes when she recalls how a local society for older gentlemen had called her to say, “We don’t want to take your husband here anymore,” adding the facility was “not for babysitting.” Whether or not the facility might have been adequate for caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, it takes a special lack of self-awareness to say to a wife acting as a sole caregiver – with little to no support from the rest of society – that you feel she is taking advantage of you by treating you as a free “babysitter.”
Marilyn’s experience is replicated by several other retirees in Florida who Eric Gordon’s camera occasionally accompanies. In a support group, where the wives of dementia patients finally have a chance to talk about their feelings, one woman breaks down feeling that she is going to lose her husband twice – once when he forgets her, once when he passes away. She is followed by another woman who echoes the sentiment, but notes that her daughter recently chastised her for ‘complaining’ about the stress she was under as a caregiver. Apparently, the daughter asked coldly “what do you want, a medal?” before feeling a little sheepish about the remark, and mailing an actual medal to her mother.
She is not the only family figure to have distanced themselves from the situation. When Hy Rothman developed severer late-stage Alzheimer’s, leaving him unable to talk or move, his son purposefully stayed away – not wanting to “see himself” in his ailing father. Meanwhile, friends and colleagues ceased to invite the Rothmans to gatherings, with Rothman’s wife Arline concluding she felt they were embarrassed by Hy forgetting his ‘manners.’ She goes on to lament the fact nobody takes into account her feelings about any of this, or is willing to offer her any kind of outlet from her daily routine, watching her husband drift away.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is just how much of this everyday routine the camera is given access to. The women who invite Eric Gordon into their homes, to show so many distressing, deeply personal moments, deserve immense praise for their courage and candour – because while this story needed to be told, and the world made aware of this kind of alienation and suffering, the wives and carers could justifiably have said, “show that with someone else’s story.”
The one shortcoming the film might arguably have is that the people whose story is told are slightly homogenous. As retirees of a certain generation, seeing out their final days in the Sunshine State, most of them are financially comfortable enough to obtain top-notch medical treatment, and access relatively comfortable retirement homes if they cannot provide the kind of care their loved ones need. I was left wondering how these stories might have unfolded in a lower income community somewhere else in the US, where I suspect the privatised nature of health and social care in the US would add an extra nightmarish dimension to caring for a husband or wife with Alzheimer’s.
However, it would be unfair to chalk up the absence of this story as a shortcoming of this filmmaker. That story does need to be told – but at the same time, independent documentary filmmakers are best served focusing on what they know, exposing the parts of a story they have access to. It takes courage and skill to display the vulnerability of your own family in such an accomplished and affecting manner, and that deserves nothing but the highest praise.
When All That’s Left is Love has justifiably garnered praise from film festivals around the world. Realistically, it doesn’t need another cheerleader chiming in to help it make an impact on audiences, because it already will have done so. What the amazing people on screen do deserve, however, is that we do not view their lives in a vacuum. We need to walk away from this film aware that the system for elderly care is not fit for purpose as it is now, placing huge pressure on loved ones to pick up the state and society’s slack. If we want to be given the time, space and comfort to do justice to our most precious relationships as they end, we have to fight for change now.