Not in Love with AMOUR

Paris. Musicians. Elderly couple. Stroke. Disability.

AMOUR (2012) has all the essential elements to become my favorite movie. Ironically, I remain troubled by my tepid reaction 3 weeks after seeing it while most of my friends within and outside of the aging field laud it as the best aging-related movie in years. If this is the lens through which our society learns to appreciate the intersection between aging, caregiving, disability, and dying, I think we may have a problem.

This is not the first time older couples with significant physical and mental disability are featured in a motion picture. Iris (2001) and Away from Her (2006) both depict dementia and its associated challenges with a steady stroke of realism. Though syrupy, The Notebook (2004) effectively highlights the loving determination of the spousal caregiver.

What sets Amour apart is its voyeuristic exposé of personal care: Multiple wheelchair transfers, laps of leg exercise, sitting through a shower half-naked, incontinence, spoon-feeding, incessant moaning… Though informative to those unfamiliar with aging and caregiving, this painstakingly-detailed presentation feels like an exploitation of an otherwise humbling experience for art’s sake.

Instead of saluting caregivers, Amour manipulates viewers to admire the male protagonist’s tireless and honorable efforts, so much so that his final decision becomes almost justifiable. Upon closer examination, this is a rather unbalanced view of love among chronically-ill couples. Georges is the martyr. Anne’s wishes, her fear of becoming a burden, her struggle with her own decline all pale in comparison.

Amour strikes me as a beautifully-made horror movie with an implicit assumption that all caregivers will eventually crumble; and that certain lives are no longer worth living and should therefore be discarded. By putting the worst nightmare of many caregivers and ailing individuals on the silver screen, it unsettles and infuriates those who continue to overcome their daily physical and emotional struggle without unilaterally deciding to end their loved ones’ suffering.

A redeeming feature is the movie’s subtle yet spot-on portrayal of the adult child-parent interaction. From being completely uninvolved, to wanting to intervene, to becoming extremely emotional without knowing how to offer practical help, the experience of the adult daughter parallels that of the viewers’ as the story unfolds. The general discomfort and unnecessary sympathy from “the outsiders” are what caregivers and ailing individuals can easily see through and relate to.

In a culture that is plagued by fears of aging and disability, any attempt to bring these issues to the forefront has the potential of promoting dialogue and positive change. I am glad that Amour has received this much attention internationally. I just hope that it has not sent the wrong message to those with limited experience with aging. Caregiving can be hard but it isn’t a tragedy in itself. We don’t need yet another story to further alienate the society from our caregivers and the caregiving experience in general.

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About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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