Robot & Frank: Some Musings on Dementia

I recently went to see a film called Robot & Frank. It was set in the near future and the main storyline was about the relationship that developed between an elderly man and the robot that his son provided to help care for him and enable him to maintain his independence. It was an enjoyable and thought provoking film: well scripted and pitched, with some excellent and beautifully underplayed performances, especially from Frank Langella who played Frank.. There were lovely comic moments, it posed questions and provoked thought, and at no point did it descend into schmaltz. It was in many respects life affirming and not depressing.

Whilst I knew that the plotline revolved around an aging man with health issues who wished to remain independent and that his family were not able to personally provide the required support. I did not know before going in that the main character Frank was suffering from dementia.  As I realised this in the opening scenes, it took on a new relevance to me.

The main aim of the Antarctic Odyssey is to raise funds for Alzheimer Scotland, to support dementia sufferers and their carers within my community, and to raise awareness. Mental health issues can make many people feel uncomfortable; and because of that I believe that mental health charities are not always top of the list for fundraisers. I have seen first-hand how people can respond to mental ill health and not just dementia. Sufferers feel a stigma and unable to talk about it; and those who are not affected may try to avoid or ignore it, change the conversation, or look the other way. It is not that they are being callous or unkind: they lack information and do not feel comfortable acknowledging it or discussing it. Dementia is devastating for sufferers, family and supporters; it is degenerative and there is no cure. At the risk of sounding trite or clichéd: I see a certain synergy between the odyssey and my fundraising; in that dementia can almost be looked at as a freezing out; or likened to someone disappearing and getting lost in a frozen wasteland. But also, for carers and family, it can seem like they are being frozen out.

Several themes stood out for me. There were the obvious questions around robotics, sentience and anthropomorphising. Can a robot that is given data or ‘memories’ and the algorithms to create reasoning and interaction with people; and which continues to build those ‘memories’ and reasoning capabilities develop human characteristics? This is a question that has been often explored by thinkers, and writers in many philosophical papers, literature and film. But it is not one that I will tackle here. One observation, however; it is hard not to anthropomorphise, especially with a media such as fiction and film.

Another aspect that I found myself thinking about was, what is it that makes us human and distinguishes us? Is it our memories? Is that what makes us human, and if we lose those memories do we lose some of our humanity? I suppose that this links in with the robotics theorising. Having the robot with a perfect memory and almost infinite capacity to store memories play opposite a man losing him memories was a perfect vehicle to highlight this point. O perhaps it is the opposite;  it is that fragility, that possibility of slipping into dementia and losing our memories that makes us so human.

Questions were posed round the care aspect too. Frank’s condition was degenerating, episodes of anxiety and confusion were increasing, medication and meals being missed and his home descending into an untidy and dirty chaos. His life had no focus, no goal. The robot, not only kept house but prepared appropriate meals, ensured medication was taken and instituted a routine with regular exercise and projects to focus the mind. This is as you would expect from a computer. There was no arguing, a bit of reasoning, but the robot always won the argument. Frank’s daughter disapproves of this regimented and ‘uncaring’ approach to Frank’s care and well-being, in spite of the improvement in his general state and health. She returns home, switches off the robot and takes over the responsibility. In spite of best intentions chaos soon descends: inappropriate and missed meals, no exercise, no projects, untidiness; and Frank deteriorates again.  It brought to mind that much used phrase ‘killing him with kindness’. The implication being that a more detached, regimented and task driven routine was in many respects the kinder option.

Finally, the likenesses drawn between a robot having its memory wiped and re-programmed and dementia. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, Frank finds himself having to contemplate wiping the robots memory. He is reluctant to do it, he knows all too well the pain and frustration of losing his memory and does not want to willingly inflict that on another being.  However, as the robot points out, they simply take it away and give it a new set of memories, which puts the robot in a better place than Frank. Frank cannot be simply re-programmed with new memories or even his old ones.

Robot and Frank was a, positive and life affirming take on dementia. Whilst it did not pose any questions not already asked by many, it did provoke thought in in a gentle and entertaining way, which is surely a good thing.