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When Alzheimer’s Strikes, Caregivers Are Victims, Too: A Review of Iris


By Elaine Cassel

Iris, nominated for the Academy Award for best actor, best actress, and best supporting actress, delivers a moving portrait of a marriage that ends with the death of the wife from Alzheimer’s disease. It realistically portrays the stress this debilitating disease places on caregivers.

Iris, nominated for the Academy Award for best actor, best actress, and best supporting actress in 2002, delivers a moving portrait of a marriage that ends with the death of the wife from Alzheimer’s disease. It realistically portrays the stress this debilitating disease places on caregivers.

The marriage of British author Iris Murdoch and John Bayley had its share of dramatic highs and lows during its 40-year duration. Iris, in her healthy days, was not an easy person to live with. Let’s just say that the relationship had its challenges, some of which are not divulged in the movie (such as Murdoch’s bisexualism). But dealing with Alzheimer’s disease was, for Iris and John, the ultimate challenge in which the partners were inextricably enmeshed.

Bayley, tolerant and longsuffering throughout their marriage, was faced with the problems shared by all who are the primary caregivers of Alzheimer’s victims. Ironically, the disease deprives its sufferers of the ability to recognize themselves and their suffering, while relentlessly reminding caregivers that their loved ones are only phantoms of their former selves. The brain’s inability to replace dead or damaged neurons underlies the unremitting progression of the disease. The ability to make new memories gradually diminishes, along with the inability to recall all but the most distant past. Eventually the victim cannot dress, bathe, feed, or toilet themselves.

The toll Alzheimer’s takes on caregivers is just as horrific as that on the victim. The movie does not gloss over the grim facts of everyday life nor hide the frustration that Bayley feels as Murdoch regresses deeper and deeper into childlike and infantile behaviors. Like A Beautiful Mind, which deals with schizophrenia, Iris depicts how love and commitment take on new meaning when a loved one faces a serious mental illness. But unlike schizophrenia, which is treatable and sometimes curable, Alzheimer’s is a death sentence.

Research efforts are underway to reverse the course of Alzheimer’s through controversial treatments. These include replacing lost tissue with tissue from another brain. Brain tissue grafts, especially when enhanced by adding naturally occurring proteins called growth factors (or neurotropic factors), which promote the survival of neurons, have shown promise in animal studies. However, because its use with humans requires tissue from aborted fetuses or discarded embryos, it has generated considerable controversy.

Another approach is the development of a vaccine for Alzheimer’s that would, initially at least, be given to the small percent of the population who have inherited a defective gene that causes early-onset Alzheimer’s (Murdoch did not have this strain of the disease). However, in February 2002, clinical trials were halted when some subjects manifest a deadly brain infection similar to encephalitis.

Until treatments that can halt or reverse the course of Alzheimer’s become readily available, the focus will continue to be on treating patients in the early stages of the disease with drugs that help maximize neural functioning and educating and supporting caregivers who bear an enormous burden of trying to preserve the dignity of their loved ones—and themselves.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College



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