A moving story of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, now a major Academy Award-winning film starring Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart.
Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert in linguistics, with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to grow forgetful and disoriented, she dismisses it for as long as she can until a tragic diagnosis changes her life – and her relationship with her family and the world around her – for ever.
Unable to care for herself, Alice struggles to find meaning and purpose as her concept of self gradually slips away. But Alice is a remarkable woman, and her family learn more about her and each other in their quest to hold on to the Alice they know. Her memory hanging by a frayed thread, she is living in the moment, living for each day. But she is still Alice. — Synopsis from Goodreads
Still Alice is a powerful novel, written by Lisa Genova and published in 2007. It was adapted for the screen in 2014 by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. I have yet to watch the movie, as I wanted to experience the book first. This style of ‘real-life’ drama is not what I generally enjoy in a novel or film but Still Alice drew me in because of its themes centred on psychology. Not only does it present the struggles of a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease but also this individual has an understanding of brain capacity and structure, due to their background as a Harvard psychology professor.
It took me longer to read Still Alice than it would a book of equivalent size from sci-fi or fantasy genres and I feel this is in part due to what I felt was a rather dry opening. However as I got further into the novel, the necessity of laying out for the reader the normality of Alice’s life before she becomes symptomatic became apparent. Without this understanding of how Alice’s life was before the effects of Alzheimer’s affected her the heavy emotional impact of later events would be lost.
By the final third of the book, I found myself very emotionally invested in the narrative. This resulted in my needing to take a few breaks here and there to unwind from the emotional tension. I found myself just wanting to enter the pages of the book to give Alice a hug and equally console and slap her family members. The impact of having a narrative that focuses on what the Alzheimer’s patient is thinking and feeling and their interpretation of how others act and treat them was very well written. As highlighted in the novel there is a lot of support for those caring for an individual for Alzheimer’s (far more than there is support for patients) and so there is quite a lot of cultural understanding about the difficulties faced by carers. While this recognition of difficulties faced by carers, families etc. is without question important I found it heart breaking that there is so little regard for the patients who, already feeling trapped in their mind are somewhat disregarded, tucked into a corner and made to feel even more alienated, without even the safe haven of a group for fellow sufferers to say “I experienced that too, you are not alone, I understand”.
As it has been twelve years since the publication of the novel, there have been several improvement of care of Alzheimer patients. I found a lot of positive information through Alzheimer Scotland and the Alzheimer’s society, including information about a project begun last year called Dementia Dogs (assistance dogs for those in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s or Dementia). I was particularly pleased to see that there is tailored advice for those of the LGBT community who may suffer from these degenerative diseases addressing issues such as attaining legal gender recognition or allowing partners to make decisions for you later on. There is however a lot more recognition needed in day-to-day life. As Alice herself says in the novel (p282): “Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is like being branded with a scarlet A…” and individuals need to not “… look at [their] scarlet A and write [them] off.” It is important to recognize that just because patients find it difficult to communicate them, they still have thoughts, feelings and opinions that are relevant to themselves, and their situation. They are Still [Alice].