Dir.: Kristof Bilsen; Doc with Chutimon Sonsirichai (Pomm), Elisabeth Röhmer, Maya Gloor, Walter Gloor; Belgium 2019, 82 min.
People are living longer but not always enjoying a healthy or happy old age in Western Europe. Kristof Bilsen tackles the alarming truths behind our care home crisis in his heart-breaking documentary that sees a Swiss family sending their mother across the world to be looked after by strangers in her final years.
But before you jump to condemn them, just consider this. Thai women come to the UK in their droves every year to enjoy the benefits of our strong economy that allows them to make a living by offering their unique talents as masseuses and alternative health professionals. Their kids are left with their extended families and see their mothers only one or twice a year in some cases. Meanwhile UK care homes charge extortionate amounts of money just for bed and board (at BUPA you pay a basic £100,o00 per annum in central London), while bosses cream off the profits and pay their care staff a pittance. These substandard employees are sometimes unable to communicate with residents due to their poor English skills, and often have little aptitude or interest in their badly paid jobs. It’s a critical situation that seems to indicate that this Swiss family could be doing their mother a favour, and even saving money into the bargain.
In Thailand, Pomm looks after Alzheimers patients from German-speaking countries in the Baan Kamlangchay hospice near Chiang-Mai. Her own three children are looked after by her husband and extended family. She too is badly paid but infinitely more compassionate, working an eight hour shift, with another job to make ends meet, her relationship with her husband is strained.
In this tranquil sanctuary, Elisabeth Röhmer is in the last stages of Alzheimers, but Pomm remembers when she loved to do the crossword and helped the carers learn English. After Elisabeth’s death, Pomm will be responsible for Maya, a mother of three from Zofingen in Switzerland. Her husband Walter and three daughters Joyce, Sara and Tanya are struggling to find suitable care for grandma Maya, so the clinic in Thailand seems the best solution. ”It would be selfish to keep her here so we could see her all the time. She gets much better care in Thailand”. And this true because Maya, like Elisabeth before her, will have three carers working round the clock.
Once she arrives with her family in Thailand Maya takes time to settle down in her new environment, awoken by exotic birdsong on her first morning. She is clearly not as happy about the move as the Gloor family would have us believe as they share their last Christmas together far from home. On a boat trip, they discuss how to say goodbye to Maya. Super 8 mm family films show a younger Maya in happier times. Back home in Switzerland, the Gloors Skype Maya who is still at odds with their departure but adapting to her new circumstances.
So is there such a difference between East and West? Clearly in the Far East there is far more respect for adults, their wisdom and experience is highly valued both by the family and in society as a whole. This extends to the process of dying as we saw in Locarno winner MRS FANG. It seems like a double whammy when elderly members of the family lose their dignity and need our care and patience while they remain critical, controlling and difficult, as in the case with dread diseases such as Alzheimers. Their dehumanisation process is disorientating, their loss of dignity strangely infantalises them in the eyes of those who once looked up to them and respected their seniority. We expect to look after our kids, but not our parents. And England has now become a child-centric culture, where children have become objects of desire, admired and put on a pedestal, as we saw recently in the case of Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg.
Bilsen remains objective in his fascinating and thought-provoking film,. Pomm reflecting that her job has shown her the difference between rich and poor. Really? Maya has three care givers because the Swiss family can afford it, yet the carers in both countries are badly paid. The difference is that over here in the UK the care is poor even when you throw money at it; clearly compassion cannot be bought. Pomm wonders (as we all do) what will happen to her if she becomes a victim of Alzheimers. Who will care for her? All over the world we are relying on others to care for our loved ones because we are too busy looking after ourselves.
THE WORLD PREMIER OF MOTHER SCREENS AT SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 9 JUNE 2019