8 things you can learn about care giving by watching The Savages

Watching the savages

Though released in 2007, Tamara Jenkins’ film The Savages was but recently watched on DVD by the author of these lines. Which doesn’t make much difference for the purpose of this article; since it’s not about giant robots, teenage wizards, sparkling vampires or shirtless werewolves, but was actually premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won several independent filmmaking awards, chances are a good many people haven’t watched it either. And that is quite a shame, not only because it’s a great film in general, but also because it contains quite a few lessons on what is like to deal with an aging parent.

In a nutshell, the film is about siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), who must come to terms with their estranged father Lenny’s (Philip Bosco)descent into dementia. Jon and Wendy are not the closest brother and sister tandem to begin with, and find it difficult to see eye to eye on many issues, especially on how their father should be cared for. Both are facing additional personal and/or professional crises, and though neither becomes the old man’s primary caregiver, that doesn’t take away from their efforts and sacrifice. If it did, it would be tantamount to saying that secondary caregivers aren’t as important, and we all know that all caregivers matter. Here are some of the things I learned by the time the end credits started to roll.

Anyone can need care. Some seniors are very independent; others are even too independent. Lenny was so independent that he hadn’t seen his children in years, and was living comfortably in Sun City, Arizona with his girlfriend Doris and her own caregiver. However, shortly before Doris’ death, Lenny gives an unmistakable sign of mental imbalance (I won’t mention it here; suffice it to say that it is very scatological in nature). Soon afterwards he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and his children are forced to put their lives on hold while they figure out how to take care of their father.

Even a lousy parent deserves care. It is strongly implied that Lenny was not only an absent father, but an abusive one. Nevertheless, both Jon and Wendy fly out to Arizona in order to find him and become responsible for him. Wendy in particular seems to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; when told that he might be suffering from dementia she says ‘maybe Dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were.’ The issue of whether they struggled with the decision of dropping everything and rushing to their less-than-stellar father is never raised, and it’s just as well. It’s a nice touch that they both felt it was their duty to do so, even if they weren’t thrilled at the perspective.

Decisions must be made. Jon and Wendy find themselves in a position where quick decisions must be made with little to no margin of error, even when alternatives are few or non-existent. Wendy suggests assisted living while Jon thinks a nursing home is a more sensible measure. He finds one close to his home in New York called Valley View, though Wendy would prefer ‘nicer’ alternatives like another one called Green Hill Manor. And so on and so forth. In fact, they have a very interesting conversation about the state of nursing home, the residents and the relatives. And speaking of conversations…

Difficult conversations must take place. Obviously, most of the decisions concern Lenny, and some of them only he can make. It’s basic care giving that the patient must be involved in the decision making progress as long as they are still able to be a part of it. Jon and Wendy are in the unenviable yet inevitable obligation of having to ask their father whether he would want to be unplugged from a respirator should he fall into a come, and if so, whether he wants to be buried or cremated. At times like those Lenny seems pretty lucid, but it comes and goes.

It’s thankless work. Most of the time though, Lenny doesn’t know where he is, what he is saying, and doesn’t even recognize his children. Although there is little indication that he was the warmest person when he was well, we can never know if he appreciated what was being done for him, and whether he would have expressed gratefulness if he had had a way to convey it (there are little details, but they are more for the benefit of the audience than the characters). Though both siblings recognize the situation, they can’t help having their feelings inadvertently hurt by Lenny. Still, they soldier on and power through.

There will be fighting. Like mentioned above, Jon and Wendy are almost never on the same page, but even the closest of relatives will have hard time not getting into arguments, caused by someone’s denial, guilt, or any other human emotion that can’t be helped in petty situations, let alone in such a delicate one. There is a very poignant scene where Jon and Wendy yell at each other in the car, while Lenny, in a rare moment of lucidity, turns his hearing aid off.

The end must come. The outcome of care giving is a foregone conclusion, and it can even be anti-climatic, as Wendy utters ‘that’s it?’ when Lenny finally stops breathing. This should not be considered a failure, though. The job of the caregivers is not to save the patient, but to usher them into whatever lies beyond with comfort and dignity. Moreover, they are usually better off that way. Like a doctor said in the movie, a stroke would actually spare everyone the worst part. At one point, a Valley View employee tells Wendy that the toes curl under a few days before a person dies. It might take months or years, but the toes always curl under; relatives must be prepared for that and be willing to grief as well as to move on.

There are rewards. The sacrifice and the challenge are well depicted. However, it can’t be without its rewards either, and that’s what leads Wendy to end up adopting an old, sick dog who would have been put down otherwise. The final scene shows the dog running after Wendy in a wheelchair contraption for her hind legs. The best part of the film is probably that it doesn’t show martyrs but real people who are already overwhelmed. They are neither saints nor heroes, and they are certainly not perfect, but by the end they have undoubtedly become better persons. 

Related Read: Caregiving is not a burden if you see it with eyes of love