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It's "the best ad of the holiday season" — here's why I don't like it

It seems like everyone I'm friends with on Facebook is sharing the same video right now. It's the new holiday ad by Chevrolet — have you seen it?

I couldn't avoid it; my timeline has been flooded with folks posting the video and related articles, with headlines calling it "even better than the best advertising" and "the best ad of the season… no, the decade!"

The commercial (which is more like a short film with a runtime of 5+ minutes) shows a family coming together for the holidays. Kids run through the house holding gifts as the parents don aprons in the kitchen.

Grandma, though, is sitting by herself in the living room, away from the others. She stares into space with a blank expression, the viewer led to assume she has dementia or some other sort of cognitive impairment. (We see the gray hair, the leather recliner, the emotionless face — we get it.) The children try to give her a present but she doesn't engage. In the kitchen, the adult daughter asks Dad how he's dealing with everything. "There are good days and bad days, but the love is always there," Dad says with a sad smile. "Some days she doesn't even recognize me."

At this point in the video, I felt hopeful – yes, even on bad days, even when she doesn't recognize you, the love is always there! That's the spirit!

Then a teenage granddaughter who notices that Grandma isn't joining in the holiday festivities takes it upon herself to intervene. They go out to the garage where the teen dramatically whips the cover off an old Chevrolet truck (this is an ad, remember?). She and Grandma then go for a ride around town.

Sweet, right?

Here's where there starts to be a problem, for me: As they drive around town, Grandma begins to remember things. They pass her old high school and she recalls the name of her high school sweetheart (her now husband). They go to the drive-in movie theater and Grandma tells an anecdote about piling the kids in the Chevy to see a horror film.

The teenage granddaughter's eyes light up. Grandma is remembering things! As we drive around in this old Chevrolet, Grandma is coming to life! Her memory is working again!

The granddaughter – who in the beginning of the ad sat on the couch with her back to Grandma's chair, playing around on her phone — can finally relate to and be present with Grandma because Grandma's memory is sparking back to life. Finally now we can connect! There was no common ground back at the house when Grandma wasn't remembering things, but now I'll engage with her! Her memory is working so this relationship can, too!

When they return home from their ride, Grandma is like a new woman. Her husband comes out to the car and is met with a big smile; they share an emotional embrace — she knows him. He's relieved at his wife's recognition and affection, saying "It's good to be together." The implication is that because she can, in that moment, recognize her husband... they're finally, really together.

Wait, weren't they just together at the house? Before the ride in the truck? Or is that "together" less valuable because that "together" didn't include Grandma's functioning memory?

For me – and I can admit I'm likely being overly critical, but hear me out – the storyline boils down to an oversimplified and somewhat problematic message that genuine connection and true togetherness relies on a presence of memory.

When Grandma starts remembering — and suddenly engaging with the young children and acting socially appropriate — she is praised (literally, there's applause). She is remembering things, so she is shown extra excitement and affection. You're remembering! You're back! Now you deserve celebration!

It's almost like as the memories start flooding back, Grandma becomes worthy again.

Now, I am not discounting the power of nostalgic prompts like a vintage car or old favorite song. And I think if those things bring up memories for a loved one with dementia, that's wonderful and special.

But it's also ok if they don't bring back any memories. And Grandma is worth our time and energy and attention and attempts at connection and conversation even if she remains sitting in the rocking chair by the window, silently staring out at nothing.

Remember: In the beginning of the ad, Grandma's husband says that love is enough. But I think the content of the ensuing movie says "Yeah, love is enough – but remembering is better!"

I believe that even if Grandma can't greet her husband by name or recall exactly who he is, she always knows this man is someone who shows her love. And she can feel his presence, their togetherness, regardless of whether or not the name "Bill" ever leaves her lips.

This reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books, "On Vanishing" by Lynn Casteel Harper:

"Whether or not mother is deemed worthy of the same civic, collective recognition afforded to others seems to hinge on the manifestation of a particular cognitive ability: only if she is able to recognize others is she a candidate for greater social recognition. One's ability to recognize seems to serve as a litmus test for personhood."

Along those same lines, a few excerpts from Lisa Genova's book "Remember":

"Memory losses are real and frustrating, infuriating, scary and heartbreaking but they are not everything."

"[Memory loss] hasn’t taken away his faith or his ability to be present or to have rich relationships with other people."

"Nor is memory required for feeling the full range of human emotions. You don’t need memory to love and feel loved. My grandmother knew none of us when she died of Alzheimer’s … but even on the day she died she knew she was loved. She didn’t know who we were but she loved us back."

Or what about this line from Dr. Tia Powell's book "Dementia Reimagined":

“I’ll bet that even if someday I don’t know you, I’ll see in your faces great beauty.”

What if Grandma couldn't go out in the Chevy for a ride around town? What does it look like to be with her, and connect with her, and love her, while she's still in the armchair by the window? (Or — here's an idea — how about having her in kitchen with the half dozen other adults?!)

Dr. Al Power says “Sometimes the best way to connect is to just BE with someone.” Imagine what it would look like if Grandma's family didn't need the magic of the Chevrolet to connect with her. If all people living with dementia could be seen as whole, even if their memory is missing. That's my Christmas wish.

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Nov 29, 2023

Well put Caroline. ❤️

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