Dementiabots: The movie, Robot & Frank
I went Friday night to see a movie just released here, Robot & Frank. I knew I would love it just based on the premise, but it may just be my favorite movie in the last couple years.
Set in the “near future”, it tells the story of Frank, an older man suffering from early dementia, who is given a robot by his children to help take care of him. The man, bored and isolated in a country town, gradually comes to enjoy the company and stimulation the robot provides. The story gets moving when you learn that before his retirement he was a professional jewelry thief and now, with the encouragement the robot provides to be active, he realizes he can get back in the game and teach the robot to help him steal. It’s a movie, so inevitably they get into trouble.
I am a sucker for movies about dementia because it is complex and a hard topic to do sensitively and well. But Robot & Frank is about more than the vanishing mind. It is about the person Frank was, is and always will be, and how dementia is just a part of that. The movie and the actor, Frank Langella, make him shine as a character. It is also about the stress that an aging and vulnerable parent puts on children, especially in the US, who live far away and have their own families or geographically distant careers. In this way it touches on the way Americans in particular are dealing with dementia.
But it went from good to great because it got how we treat dementia right (Sadly, in the near future we still don’t have better medication to treat dementia it seems). Now we largely treat dementia with lifestyle changes and support via caregivers and adult day programs. The robot is basically a lifestyle manager– he gets Frank on a routine; he makes sure he sleeps enough; he keeps the house clean and orderly; he cooks and serves him well-balanced meals at regular times. He endlessly proposes activites: let’s garden, let’s go for a walk, let’s play a game. He knows that to keep Frank well he needs to keep him as physically and mentally as active as possible and keep a routine. And then when Frank gets upset or angry, naturally he does not take it personally and can continue to work with Frank. He does not get upset or burnt out — an unfortunate reality for many human caregivers. By the end I was intrigued on how robots could be the perfect treatment to help people with dementia have the best functioning possible.
I would even suggest that Frank gets the idea to have the robot help him with burglaries because his brain is working better at this point, after the robot’s interventions have made him sharper. This is not unusual. When someone with dementia starts getting good care, they start doing better in many ways– mentally, socially and physically.
No matter, it’s all a movie anyway and such sophisticated technologies, while present in small ways– eg. alerts installed at home to help family monitor their loved ones from afar, small fuzzy robots to help demented patients with behavior issues (see this prior post)— are a long way from being fully autonomous beings that can live with otherwise independent elders. But I was impressed with how the screenplay and the movie treated the tangled issues of dementia, aging, and family tension and made it fun and funny. Like anyone with dementia, Frank never stops surprising everyone, even the robot, who he reminds that “the human brain, it’s a lovely piece of hardware.” Indeed.
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