Dementia on Film — Still Alice

I was eager to know if  Still Alice could capture the deep truths of dementia on film. Caregivers like me don’t get much time to go to the movies, so it was gone from theaters long before I finally saw it. No one wanted to watch it with me, so I viewed the DVD all alone. I was very glad I did it.

Dementia on Film Still Alice

My sister, who loves movies as much as I do, was afraid to watch Still Alice. She thought it would dredge up sad memories of mom’s first dementia symptoms. We were all frantic at that time in our lives. My sister did not want to revisit that pain. I wanted to see the movie for the opposite reason. I wanted to be sure that this important work offered a realistic portrayal of dementia, not just a rehash of Hollywood fluff. I was happy that Julianne Moore was cast in the lead role. She’s very intelligent and has the talent needed to capture the subtleties of Alzheimer’s and how it effects families.

Still Alice brought me to tears several times. When smart, capable Alice can’t figure out where she is at the beginning of the film, Moore plays the scene perfectly. Her acting did exactly what my sister feared. It made me recall the harrowing days when my mother would walk out to get lunch and forget why she left the house. Julianne Moore captured the sense of panic that arrives with the first bewildering episodes of forgetfulness.

During those early days, my mother kept losing her bank card. Sometimes she’d call a friend, who would go to Mom’s house and find the card for her. When her symptoms got worse, Mom would call me to report that someone stole it. My mother started being suspicious of everyone around her, thinking they were taking her money or planning to hurt her. During these calls, there was a terrifying note of hysteria in her voice. Like the main character in Still Alice, Mom’s biggest fear was that she would not be able to exercise control over basic aspects of her life.

The film made me wonder about the medication Alice took and the unanticipated effects it might have had on her behavior. The movie didn’t say much about Alice’s treatment options. It just said that little could be done for her form of the disease. The Alice character did mention, however, that she was taking Namenda. Just hearing her say that took me back to my mother’s horrible experience with that drug. Mom did all kinds of truly crazy things until we realized that the medication was doing more harm than the disease (at that point). A film can’t pursue every possible story line, but I would have liked to hear Alice’s family talk more about treatment issues. They are critical matters for dementia families.

Alice’s wealth was one aspect of the film that I found to be too cinematic. I understand that it’s easier to make a visually engaging movie when the characters live in a gorgeous New York brownstone and spend months at the beach. But most families facing issues like Alice’s are struggling to figure out how they’ll pay for care. I did not detect any sense of urgency on the part of Alice’s husband or kids regarding the costs of treatment.

The movie made me thankful that my mother didn’t share Alice’s notions about ending her life. Sure my mom was scared, but she was not frightened enough to think she should just stop living. Although it is a huge challenge to care for someone with progressive dementia, our family has been strengthened a million times over by working to give my mother the best possible life. If she had left us sooner, we would have been cheated of the chance to learn how deep love can grow when you grapple with dementia. Still Alice captured this important truth in its portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship. If you’re a family member trying to figure out what can be gained from dealing with this awful disease, Still Alice may have an important message for you. Don’t be afraid to watch it.

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