Spoiler Alert: This blog contains significant information about the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Viewing Silver Linings Playbook Through an Elder Abuse Lens

There are very few films that accurately depict the family dynamics when older adults are compelled to care for a child with mental illness. Unfortunately, these situations can and sometimes do turn abusive. While older parents are obviously well meaning, acting out of love and a sense of familial duty, they may not have the emotional, financial or physical resources to deal with someone with severe mental illness who is also demonstrating unpredictable and abusive behavior. At first blush, Silver Linings Playbook, a screwball comedy/kooky love story directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) would seem an unlikely candidate to tackle this somber issue with temerity and a high degree of verisimilitude. And although Russell spends most of his time developing the mercurial relationship between his two romantic leads, so too does he convey the potential dangers that result when elderly parents are unable to care for their mentally ill children with impulsive, violent tendencies.

Family Dynamics & Evidence of Elder Abuse Presented in the Film

Bradley Cooper (Limitless, The Hangover) plays Pat Solitano Jr., a former substitute teacher from Philadelphia who is institutionalized in a Baltimore mental health facility after he discovers a colleague in the shower with his wife and beats the man to near death. Pat is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicated, although he spits out his pills when the hospital staff isn’t watching. Eight short months after his initial institutionalization, Pat’s mother Delores, nicely played by a very sympathetic Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, The Five-Year Engagement) removes him from the medical facility, much to the protestations of the staff. They believe that while Pat has stayed the legally mandated eight months, he has not completed his treatment. No sooner have they left the hospital parking lot before Pat Jr. tricks his mother into smuggling out another hospital patient (Chris Tucker) and nearly runs her car off the road.

Things do not improve for the Solitanos after arriving home in Philadelphia. Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (a committed Robert DeNiro,) a financially strapped bookie with clear obsessive-compulsive tendencies, is perturbed to find his son released from the hospital so soon. Mrs. Solitano did not consult with her husband before releasing their son, mirroring the real world, as parents do not always agree on an approach to helping adult dependent children. She unilaterally and furtively made the decision to end Pat’s hospitalization because “Look at him. He’s ready.” This very quickly proves to not be the case.

The abuse suffered by Delores and Pat Solitano is due to their son’s uncontrollable explosiveness and their inability to fully treat him against his will. Pat’s first night home is spent reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (a misguided attempt to reconnect with his wife, a teacher, by reading her high school syllabus). That is, until he abruptly throws the book out a third-story window. He then bursts into his parent’s bedroom at 4AM, ranting uncontrollably about how unsatisfied he is with the book’s depressing ending. This is a fairly mild example of the discord between the Solitanos, a scene from which Russell more than anything intends to extract humor. However, it does demonstrate how completely unprepared the elder Solitanos are for handling Pat Jr.’s behavior and forecasts the probability of future altercations. Their bemused yet tolerant reaction to Pat’s outburst suggests they do not understand the severity of his illness. The elder Solitanos stipulate that Pat must attend therapy in order to live with them. They occasionally encourage Pat to take his medication but perfunctorily so, and they do not make it conditional.

A Complicated Ending & Need for Professional Intervention in Elder Abuse Cases

Pat Jr. does not intend to take advantage of his parents, but that does not make the abuse any less real or damaging. This abuse manifests with different degrees of seriousness, from something as small as taking one of his father’s empty but precious-to-him money envelopes without asking to a violent bipolar episode culminating in physical assault and a police officer knocking at the front door. At this point in the film, it becomes very evident that the living arrangement in the Solitano household is untenable. Fortunately for the Solitanos, this incident convinces Pat to get serious about his medication. It is only then that Pat Jr. stabilizes his behavior and the abuse begins to abate. He winds up saving his father’s business and develops a loving relationship with the girl next door.

This glycerin Hollywood ending leaves us happy for the Solitanos, but should also remind us of an unfortunate reality: that no matter how good the intentions of the cared or the cared for, many older adults caring for dependent adult children with violent tendencies and improperly treated mental illness find themselves victims of abuse. Real life elder abuse victims and their abusers need intensive, expert help from knowledgeable professionals and an involved, aware community to find their silver linings.

Did you see Silver Linings Playbook? If so, what do you think? We want to hear from you! Please use the comment section below.


by Jacob Wolk, BS, Political Communication, Emerson College.



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17 Responses to Realistic Depictions of Elder Abuse in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

  1. Ellen F. says:

    Excellent analysis of a serious topic presented under the guise of humor.

    Thank you for sharing your view.

  2. Missy H. says:

    Mr. Wolk’s essay is a sensitive and elegantly written analysis of a motif of this film that would generally go unremarked by audiences.

  3. Barry K. says:

    A great piece. Very thoughtful and well-done while still being respectful of what the movie was trying to achieve.

  4. sjm says:

    Insightful examination of the movie’s themes. So glad this organization is addressing the issues that many of us will either face personally or with aging family members.

  5. Ronnie says:

    Mr Wolk has drawn our attention to a critical issue in the field of aging. Elder abuse as we see in this movie has many faces and can easily be dismissed as just normal family business. But as beautifully highlighted in Mr Wolks essay the small daily stressors ( an often larger more serious ones) that families with mentally ill children endure can take their toll physically and mentally on caring parents. Helping these families access mental health services and community resources can make a meaningful change in the quality of their lives and ultimately to their safety and overall well being.

  6. Leanne Collins Miller says:

    This essay set off a range of emotions and memories in me of experiences that ultimately led to the financial abuse of a mother and father. As the previous person Ronnie stated, elder abuse has many faces and nuances that usually are disregarded as normal occurrences within families.
    Substance abusers are often the ones who abuse and exploit their own family members. I hope addiction experts are aware of the potential for elder abuse and exploitation when treating their patients.
    Very insightful essay.

  7. […] Keep up to date and get involved in conversations about elder abuse! Check out our recent posts on an exciting LinkedIn conversation and the depiction of elder abuse in the Academy Award nominated “Silver Linings Playbook”. […]

  8. Sharon says:

    In a previous life I was a community mental health counselor, and I remembered thinking as I was watching this film how palpably real these family dynamics felt ~ in terms of the tensions (minor and explosive) and the unpredictability, the love, and the desire for the best possible life for one’s deeply troubled adult child. In addition to the insights that Jacob shares in his essay, I think it’s also important to note that other factors were hinted at that further complicated the family dynamics ~ the father’s apparent history of explosive behavior (banned for life from the football stadium), obsessive tendencies, and making a living off of booking bets. For me, the layering of these complexities also made the situation feel very true to life.

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Sharon – Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your thoughts. You’ve raised very important points that highlight the complex issues families face when dealing with abuse and mental health issues.

  9. […] the blog post, Realistic Depictions of Elder Abuse in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, we explore representations of elder abuse in this Academy Award winning film. This film depicts […]

  10. Diana S. says:

    This essay, reactions posted, and replies have been very interesting and thought-provocative. It also raises an issue that is really not addressed in the literature: what will happen when the elderly parent caring for an adult child with a mental illness is no longer able to care for herself, what will the potential be for exacerbation and continuation of abusive behaviors. On whose shoulders will it fall to care for the aging parent and the adult child with a mental illness? What will the role of siblings be in the future, with the aging of the population?
    Thank you for your consideration.

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Diana, thanks so much for your comment and important questions. You’ve raised so many important points. Have you ever considered continuing this conversation on LinkedIn via an aging related group? If you’re interested and need ideas of groups to post in, let me know!

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