Writer-actor-director Elizabeth Chomko’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at 68, and Chomko’s grandfather became her caregiver. At his funeral, Chomko decided she needed to make a film — her first — about her family’s caregiving experience. “It’s not a documentary or docudrama; it’s a dramatization,” Chomko explains. “I tried to capture my grandparents’ spirits as closely as I could. I wanted to make a movie about the diagnosis’s effects on the whole family.” Her script, What They Had, is racking up the awards and is now in contention for Oscars.
Though it’s deeply rooted in her own experience, What They Had really can reflect anyone’s family. “It’s about what normal people are dealing with,” Chomko says. “So many people are taking care of parents. My family didn’t know how challenging caregiving would be. They felt alone, dysfunctional, like there was something wrong with our family that we’re not dealing with this more gracefully. But I think it’s just that our families are living longer; our elders are living longer. We don’t really talk about end-of-life care and how to navigate that.” She hopes her film “opens the door for conversation, normalizing it in a way.”
While Chomko’s story has its sad moments, it’s also surprisingly upbeat and inspiring. “Alzheimer’s patients can still be who they are even if they’re not the same as they were,” she observes. “They don’t want people to treat them as though that’s all they are, that the illness is their whole identity, and stop treating them the way that they always did.” With her grandmother’s illness, Chomko recalls, “it was like a tightrope between heartbreak and hilarity. There were wonderful times when we were like schoolgirls together. I wanted to celebrate those moments that felt fun and hopeful.”
She hopes the film captures both the heartbreak and the happiness that caregiving can bring to a family. “In those powerful moments in your lives,” says Chomko, “you feel really connected in a way that makes you feel part of something greater.”