Dr. Alice Howland appears to have it all. She’s happily married, recently turned 50, has three children, and is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University.
She’s also suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and her swift and merciless descent into mental oblivion is conveyed in powerful terms in the film “Still Alice,” which is based on the book by the same title, written by Lisa Genova. The movie maintains a tight grip on the emotions thanks to a great performance by Julianne Moore. The actress has earned her fifth Academy Award nomination and her third as Best Actress for “Still Alice,” which has also drawn attention to the issue of assisted suicide for Alzheimer’s patients.
It’s heartbreaking to watch confusion play across Moore’s face as Alice’s condition deteriorates, each look of desperation indicating the battle she is rapidly losing. In one scene, she sits uncomprehendingly as her family decides what’s best for her. They are, for better or worse, moving forward while she, clearly for worse, is left behind—and falling away faster every day.
Alice proceeds with her life, teaching until she can’t, loving her husband (played by Alec Baldwin) and their grown children (played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish), and most importantly, clinging onto memories.
“I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am or what I’m going to lose next,” Alice says.
The key to Alice’s thinking comes in a speech that she delivers at the Annual Dementia Care Conference. Alice, who up to this point in her life has done her best to conceal her Alzheimer’s disease, makes no effort in her speech to minimize all that she cannot do.
“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain,” Alice confesses. But at the same time that she makes this admission, Alice insists that her condition does not erase her reasons for wanting to go on. “I live for each day. I live for the moment,” she declares.
The deeper truth, as “Still Alice” makes clear, is that people like Alice deserve better legal options and more assistance than they now can get when Alzheimer’s disease strikes and their primary concern is with ending their lives, not palliative care.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and today’s treatments only temporarily ease some symptoms. The Obama administration has declared a goal of finding effective Alzheimer’s disease treatments by 2025. Research suggests Alzheimer’s disease begins silently ravaging the brain up to 20 years before symptoms begin. One approach currently undergoing research now is assessing whether curbing sticky amyloid during that window period might at least postpone symptoms a few more years, if not prevent them.
From a health communications perspective, what can be done? “There’s very little awareness,” says Moore. “But 30 years ago, there was little awareness of cancer. With cancer, we’ve spent the money needed to properly research it and we’ve talked about it openly. That’s really changed things. I can only hope that happens with Alzheimer’s.”
By giving a frank and open portrayal of just how devastating Alzheimer’s is to a person’s emotional and physical well-being; family and career; and all other facets of life, our hope is “Still Alice” will move more people to join the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.