‘Still Alice’ – A Wake-up Call for the Perfect Life?

Martha Snyder Taggart, BrightFocus Editor, Science Communications
  • Science News
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Golden Globe Goes To ‘Nuanced’ Portrayal of Early Alzheimer’s

Congratulations to Julianne Moore, star of “Still Alice,” on her “Best Actress” award at the Golden Globes. The film, which opens January 16, portrays the struggle of a college linguistics professor who experiences early Alzheimer’s. Movie critic A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, calls Moore’s performance “exquisitely nuanced”:

… one of the tragedies of Alzheimer’s for the friends and family of the afflicted person is that the sufferer seems present and absent at the same time….From the early scenes, when brief memory lapses signal that something is wrong, through the subsequent deterioration of her cognitive ability, she [Moore] conveys both the collapse of Alice’s inner world and the panic it causes.

However, the reviewer goes on to say that the surrounding characters in Alice’s otherwise picture-perfect life—career, family, Manhattan brownstone and weekend beach house—suffer in comparison because they remain all too underdeveloped. “All of this feels like a too tidy garden that has been planted for the sole purpose of introducing a blight and observing its ravages,” Scott says. “The story is sad and sincerely told, but it is too removed from life to carry the full measure of pain that Alice deserves.”

Yes indeed, how true it is that the reach of Alzheimer’s is extensive enough, and complicated enough, that in order to fully absorb its impact, the stories of connected family and caregivers must also be told.  Like the common cold, Alzheimer’s is an all too communal illness. That’s why BrightFocus Foundation, in addition to raising private funds to support catalytic, early-stage scientific research towards treatments and cures, also is exploring solutions for these “other” victims of Alzheimer’s—families, caregivers, and communities. In September 2014, we became a founding partner in the 21CBT®/Caregiver Health-eBrain Study, and we are connected with several other initiatives in this realm.

Getting back to the movies—for the above reasons, and more, there is much to be said for “Still Alice’s” portrayal of how Alzheimer’s is not just an old person’s problem. And that sometimes it can strike during the very prime of a vibrant, middle-aged life. We applaud this wake-up call, and hope it will make more Gen X-ers and millennials pay attention. A similar tale is told by Meryl Comer, whose husband Harvey Gralnick, MD, was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s at age 58, during the height of his career at the National Institutes of Health. Comer, a former news anchor who adapted her own career to become Gralnick’s caregiver, is president of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer’s Initiative and a partner and co-founder with BrightFocus and others in the Health-eBrain study. Last year she, published a memoir of her 12-year Alzheimer’s caregiving saga, Slow Dancing with A Stranger.

Thanks to these testimonies and others, we are learning more and more about the emotional and psychological terrain of Alzheimer’s, from a variety of perspectives, as we impatiently await a cure. So far, the brightest light at the end of the tunnel may be the long literary and cinematic trail blazed by individuals who so eloquently have mapped their experience with the disease. These candid tales are brought to life by loving families and caregivers, like Comer, and by exceptionally brave individuals, like Glen Campbell, whose first-person struggle with Alzheimer’s and farewell tour were captured in last year’s documentary, “I’ll Be Me,” directed by James Keach, who also did the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk The Line.”

Hats off to all the bright minds (in more ways than one) who are bringing these stories to life, and to Hollywood, publishing houses, media bloggers, and others who are asking,  nay, commanding, that these stories be heard far and wide.

We, too, want to spread the word about the struggle that is Alzheimer’s—its immense pain and suffering, leavened by love, with occasional dollops of discovery and joy. Thus, in coming weeks, as we lead up to the Oscar’s (February 22), we plan to bring you mini-reviews of films that spotlight Alzheimer’s and dementia, both new and old. We’ll publish these write-ups in this space and on social media.

Would you do us a favor? If you get a chance to see “Still Alice,”—or another film about Alzheimer’s—would you please tell us what you think? Are Hollywood, or other media, doing a good job with their depictions? What are the best movies about Alzheimer’s you have ever seen? Are there plot lines from your own life that you would like to see written?