One of the most popular un-filmed screenplays of 2015 was a comedy about former president, Ronald Reagan, and his life with Alzheimer’s disease. Billed as a “hilarious political satire”, the screenplay featured an intern tasked with convincing Reagan, originally to be played by Will Ferrell, that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.
As one might imagine, the Reagan family and the Alzheimer’s Association were outraged. Ferrell wisely backed out. But this whole scenario begs the question: why did Hollywood execs and numerous others think a comedy about Alzheimer’s disease was appropriate?
After studying ageism for a number of years, this is my conclusion: it’s okay to make fun of Alzheimer’s disease because Alzheimer’s is an aging-related disease. Our society devalues older adults. And because we devalue them, we devalue those living with dementia. We joke about them. We marginalize them. And we segregate them from society.
For a moment, let’s imagine a very different scenario. One in which the millions of people living with Alzheimer’ disease and other types of dementia, weren’t old folks… but were kids.
What would be different?
Would we make jokes and comedies about these kids? Would we segregate them from their peers? And keep them in “locked units”?
Or, would we find ways to value and honor these children and keep them connected with people, and society?
I suspect we would see inclusive schools and playgrounds where kids living with dementia would be playing with their friends. Where their peers would be educated about dementia and would learn how to be a kind and supportive friend. And if there was even a whisper about a movie that would denigrate these kids or a mention of plans to segregate them, there would be boycotts and rallies and outraged celebrities fighting for change.
Alas, our current situation doesn’t generate this kind of passion or interest from the general public. Ageist beliefs are far too ingrained and accepted in our society. Folks like Dr. Al Power (author of Dementia Beyond Drugs and Dementia Beyond Disease) are challenging us to rethink segregation and secured neighborhoods but the topic is still far from the mainstream.
It’s time that we start asking seemingly strange questions like, “what if kids got dementia”? It’s by looking inside ourselves and asking these tough questions that we will begin to make a dent in the fight against ageism and uncover the hidden bias and prejudice that guide so many of our decisions.
Photo Credit: Gustavo Devito