By Nils Skudra
This week I had the opportunity to watch Still Alice, a 2014 film written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland which revolves around the experience of Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor whose diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease profoundly affects her relationship with her family.
I previously saw this film following its release on DVD in 2015, and I felt that it offered a compelling look at the lives of individuals with Alzheimer’s, the challenges they struggle with, and the ways in which they interrelate with family members. Given that there is often a sense of shame and stigma attached to Alzheimer’s, I believed that this film merited a review since it delivers a message of hope and empowerment for Alzheimer’s individuals and their families.
The film opens with Alice (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday with her physician husband John (Alec Baldwin) and their three adult children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Initially, Alice seemingly has every reason to enjoy this stage of her life since she is a distinguished linguistics professor at Columbia University while each of her children are leading successful careers: her eldest daughter Anna works as a lawyer and is expecting a child with her husband; Tom is in the process of completing his medical studies; and her youngest daughter Lydia is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. Her relationship with Lydia is complicated by the fact that Alice expects her to go to college in the hope of having a backup plan for a career that will provide security, while Lydia is insistent on following her passion for the performing arts. Nonetheless, Alice believes that her life overall is full of brightness and fulfillment, with no looming obstacles to her happiness.
However, Alice gradually realizes that something is adversely affecting her cognitive ability, as she forgets a word while delivering a lecture and constantly uses a phone app to remember certain words. In addition, she becomes lost during her regular jog on the Columbia University campus, at which point she feels an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Furthermore, when her children come to visit for a family dinner, she asks Tom’s girlfriend her name for a second time after having already been introduced to her several minutes earlier. She meets with her neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken), to determine what is wrong with her, as she fears that it could be a brain tumor. When he tells her to practice repeating a random name and address, she forgets the address upon trying the second time.
During Alice’s follow-up session with Dr. Benjamin, he informs her that she is possibly exhibiting signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, an extremely rare occurrence for someone in her age range since most people with Alzheimer’s are diagnosed around the age of 65 or older. Alice is shocked by this news since she didn’t expect Alzheimer’s to be the cause of her memory lapses and since she realizes how it will affect her entire life and career. When she shares this news with John, he is initially dismissive, stating that everyone has memory lapses as they get older, prompting her to have a panicked outburst: “Damn it, why won’t you take me seriously? Look, I KNOW what I’m feeling, and I… I feel, I feel like my brain is… is f***ing DYING and everything I know and everything I worked for, it’s all going…” She then breaks down crying as John tries to comfort her.
When Alice and John go to her next session with Dr. Benjamin, he confirms the initial diagnosis, stating that it is a familial disease which Alice could pass on to her children and possibly her grandchildren. She shares this heartbreaking news with the family, stating that they can decide whether to take a genetic test. Anna and Tom agree to this, with Anna testing positive and Tom testing negative, but Lydia decides not to take the test.
As Alice’s disease gradually progresses, she explores the option of moving into an assisted living facility for Alzheimer’s patients but is appalled by the conditions in which its senior residents live. To retain her memories, she daydreams about her mother and sister, both of whom died in a car crash when she was 18, and writes personal questions to herself on her phone, such as “What is your oldest daughter’s name,” so that she can answer them each day.
While Alice takes prescription medication to manage her Alzheimer’s symptoms, she secretly hides sleeping pills in her room and records a video message to herself, giving instructions for overdosing on these sleeping pills when she will no longer remember the answers to these questions. Furthermore, the progression of her disease takes a toll on her work, as she asks students to remind her about the designated topics in the syllabus and loses her focus when delivering lectures. Consequently, she admits to the head of her department that she has contracted Alzheimer’s, resulting in the loss of her job.
The progression of Alice’s Alzheimer’s also profoundly impacts her relationship with her family, as John becomes increasingly irritated and annoyed by her memory lapses, at one point telling her that they missed a dinner meeting with friends due to her being gone on her regular jog for over two hours. When he chastises Alice for not bringing her cell phone, she remarks, “I wish I had cancer. At least I wouldn’t be ashamed. When you have cancer, they wear pink ribbons for you, they hold long marches for you. At least I wouldn’t be a social – I forgot the word.” In addition, when she reads Lydia’s journal without realizing who it belongs to, Lydia is infuriated by her mother’s apparent disregard for her privacy but later apologizes, stating that she was being insensitive. She then asks her mother what having Alzheimer’s feels like, to which Alice responds:
“On my good days, I can, you know, almost pass for a normal person. But on my bad days, I feel like I can’t find myself. I’ve always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation, and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me, and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next.”
Alice is subsequently invited to speak at an Alzheimer’s conference about her experiences. She delivers a moving speech, emphasizing how she struggles to live a normal life and wishes not to be seen as a victim:
“Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? Our strange behavior and fumbled sentences change other’s perception of us and our perception of ourselves. We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. But this is not who we are, this is our disease. And like any disease it has a cause, it has a progression, and it could have a cure. My greatest wish is that my children, our children – the next generation – do not have to face what I am facing. But for the time being, I’m still alive. I know I’m alive. I have people I love dearly. I have things I want to do with my life. I rail against myself for not being able to remember things – but I still have moments in the day of pure happiness and joy. And please do not think that I am suffering. I am not suffering. I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once. So, ‘live in the moment’ I tell myself. It’s really all I can do, live in the moment. And not beat myself up too much… and not beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing. One thing I will try to hold onto though is the memory of speaking here today. It will go, I know it will. It may be gone by tomorrow. But it means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”
This speech provides powerful insights into Alice’s personal growth and self-awareness as an Alzheimer’s individual. While she struggles to remember the things that are most precious to her, she perseveres in her determination to stay connected to her family and her sense of identity, and she strives to make her life meaningful and productive during the time that she still retains her memory and her ability to speak. Furthermore, she does not want people to see her as a person to be stigmatized or pitied, but rather as someone making a passionate effort to live her life to the fullest while struggling with a severe illness. The speech strongly resonates with Alice’s family members and with the audience, who deliver a standing ovation. As the film progresses, however, Alice’s deterioration presents her family with difficult decisions that will shape their future lives, requiring major sacrifices to ensure that she receives the utmost love and care in her final years.
Still Alice provides a powerful and heartwarming narrative about the struggles of Alzheimer’s individuals and the challenges that their family members face in caring for and interrelating with them. The film features stellar performances, with Julianne Moore superbly capturing Alice’s determination, vulnerability, and resolve in the face of contending with a profoundly life-changing disease. Furthermore, the film delivers a strongly empathetic portrayal of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and its effects on interpersonal relationships. I can personally relate to this since one of my maternal great-aunts was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer recognize her children, and my neighbor’s mother often wandered aimlessly down the block or needed to be reminded of who her son was. Admittedly, I felt irritated when this took place, but watching this film provides the viewer with an opportunity to develop empathy and compassion for Alzheimer’s individuals. The film’s message of hope and empowerment can give encouragement to Alzheimer’s individuals to continue leading productive lives, with love and support from their families.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.
Thankyou very much for that! You have been able to pass on the message, without spoiling the film for us, if we can get hold of it. And the message is the most important factor. I can see underlying elements that strongly relate to any person who has Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, fibromyalgia …anyone with a life-changing condition, that’s invisible. God bless you.
Hi Nils Skudra and all,
(Debra, please read what I am about to write…)
I was immediately moved by your article and decided to watch this movie…
Several days ago I saw it, and this minute I finished watching it for the second time…
I am on the autistic spectrum since my mother had rubella at the beginning of her pregnancy. What I have is called congenital rubella syndrome. Not long ago, I published here, in “Art of Autism,” an article about why I sought a formal autism diagnosis at the age of 59.
I do not have Alzheimer’s disease, but the movie touched me deeply since it matches some things I always had. It is not progressing at all – as a matter of fact, it has been only improving throughout my life. It improved since I learned more ways to cope with it.
The Rubella virus was eating my brain while being inside the womb randomly as it did, so I do not necessarily match only autism. I always had severe problems with orientation, losing my way one street from home, finding my office at IBM, or remembering a short path I had done dozens of times before. I too often forget the names and faces of people and places. I took detailed notes while attending lectures and later when delivering courses. It is not the same thing as shown in the movie, but it definitely rings a bell. Plus, my wife has been helping me a lot.
I excelled so much in math and engineering since you can always derive things from scratch. I could compensate for everything by having top intelligence, which I still have. However, my thinking has always been slow, unlike most persons who excel in math, but very deep. I can go very deep into things, more than most people, like Buddhism, which I study and practice today full time as a Buddhist monk.
Our brain is a beautiful, miraculous thing. It has infinite degrees of freedom to compensate for things by excelling in others. I think this is why it is so common to find genius people among people on the spectrum. When we cannot interact and fit with others, we must develop unique ways to excel more than many others.
For me, being “normal” means being an average person. You may use “neurotypical” for normal in this last sentence if you like. I always say that, by definition, an average person does not change the average. When you cannot be average, you are driven to be exceptional. One phrase I love says that a gifted person does what he can, but a genius person does what he must. I do not claim anything about myself, but when you study persons like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, this is precisely what you find. They would not have gone so far if they could be “normal.” They simply did not have this option. Crowds follow the easy path. I often took it further, perhaps too far, by saying that when too many people say something, it is probably incorrect. I mean that by the time something becomes universally accepted, it is already the time to replace it with a more profound truth. Diversity is, therefore, our only chance of progress, and neurodiverse we are.
So my message to all of us on the spectrum is: We had to develop new things to cope with our difficulties, which might have a unique value to others. This is why I am proud to be autistic.
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