(2021) Documentary (First Hand) May Bjerre Elby. Directed by Louise Detlefsen
Aging is a bitch. Getting old means the physical degrading of our bodies as we slowly lose the ability to do the things we once took for granted. Worse yet, society tends to treat the aged as lovable idiots who are terrible drivers, absolutely clueless when it comes to technology and generally burdens on society.
As I write this, my mother is 85 years old. I see her regularly and yes, her memory isn’t as reliable as it once was. She tires easily. She has many infirmities which she sometimes complains about. I can see her spiraling down, no longer the woman I remember her being, the woman who raise my sister and I, who worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and who fought fiercely for my sister and I to get the very best opportunities we could to have a good life. She remains sharp and still essentially herself. Not every child gets that blessing for their parents.
In Denmark, as in the United States, elder care is a problem, particularly for those with dementia. Often their kids at some point have to put them in a care facility, exhausted and no onger to provide the care for their parents that is needed. In those places, the patients are often medicated within an inch of their lives, shut in their rooms, frightened, angry and lonely, their memories faded to virtually nothing. They are given little stimulation and less attention.
Danish nurse May Bjerre Elby worked in facilities like that. Worse yet, she had to place her father in a facility like that and watch the neglect take its toll until he passed away. Horrified at the treatment of people who had worked all their lives and helped build Denmark into the country it is today, she decided to do something about it. She opened a care center in Dasmarsminde, north of Copenhagen. Rather than utilizing advanced technology and pharmaceuticals (her residents are given little more than occasional pain medication for the aches and pains of old age), Elby instead went back to the philosophies of the original nurse Florence Nightingale as well as Danish philosopher Løgstrup for a more compassionate kind of care.
The eleven residents are given almost resort-like treatment; they are led on walks through the beautiful Danish countryside, into the garden and chicken coop, and are treated as adults. Staff look them in the eyes and give them hugs, also encouraging them to hug trees (something my mother would definitely approve of) and in general, enjoy the moment. Cake is served on a regular basis. When one of the residents passes away, the survivors drink a toast to their fallen comrade and sing their favorite song as their coffins are wheeled out to a waiting hearse.
We are introduced to a variety of the residents such as temperamental Torkild whose wife Vibeke has become unable to care for herself; Torkild also has dementia but refuses to believe it so his children manipulate him into staying with Vibeke until she is able to walk again, something that is unlikely to happen There is Inge, who flirts shamelessly with Torkild, and whose husband Jørgen has essentially given up on life, unable to take care of himself or his wife. There’s gentle Grete who breaks down at one point in the arms of a patient staffer. And yes, we meet the staff as well, particularly Dorte and Lotte.
The movie is at times overwhelming, but there is so much beauty here; yes, there are beautiful shots of the woods in all four Danish seasons (the filmmakers spent a year at the facility) but it is the beauty of the human spirit that really impresses about this movie. May’s facility is the sort of place I would want my mother to be in if her cognitive functions deteriorated to the point where she needed better care than my sister or I could provide for her ourselves – and I do think that’s at the core of May’s philosophy of care; treating the patients as she would want her own parents to be treated. It is a revolutionary – and somewhat controversial – idea for the care for our elderly, and one I hope is adopted throughout the world. Those of that age group spent their lives working, building a home for their children, creating the world (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) that we live in. They deserve to be given dignity, respect and compassion. Perhaps if we treated our elderly that way, we could learn to treat each other that way as well. And wouldn’t that make for a better world entirely?
REASONS TO SEE: A beautiful rendering of how humans respond to compassion. Treats the elderly with respect. Highly moving and emotionally gripping. Tackles a subject we tend to turn away from as a society.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get extremely painful to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: The film deals with adult themes and the sometimes painful realities of dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bjerre recently won the prestigious Fonsberg Prize, an award given to Danish citizens who raise awareness of social issues.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dick Johnson is Dead
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Everything in the End