Evaluating 'Still Alice'

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Much like "Amour" a few years ago, it's not unrealistic for those who work or write about long-term care to feel as if the last thing they want to do is spend two hours watching a movie about illness, specifically Alzheimer's disease.

Still, in continuing the tradition of seeing movies no one else will go see with us, my mother and I saw the film “Still Alice” on Monday and marveled at the performance of Julianne Moore.

Moore, who is considered the front-runner in the Oscar's Best Actress race, plays a linguistics professor who faces gaps in her memory and receives a diagnosis of early onset familial Alzheimer's disease. To worry about spoilers from there is moot: There are no happy endings with Alzheimer's, and if you work in long-term care, you know what the progression of the disease looks like.  

There is value, however, in watching the ways Alice constructs her life post-diagnosis. I enjoyed seeing the movie slightly more than reading the book, which tended to have long passages related to the neurology of the disease. (The author, Lisa Genova, is a neuroscientist.)  But what both do well is conveying Alice's despair over losing who she is, and her confusion related to her surroundings. Some big moments — Alice becomes disoriented on a run and forgets a dinner date with friends — make it from book to screen, while some others don't. In the book, I remember sharing Alice's feeling of panic when she forgets a flight, which I suspect resonated with many frequent flyers.

What healthcare professionals also will appreciate is Alice's comment when she says she wishes she had cancer. Her cancer researcher husband is aghast, but Alice makes a legitimate point about how cancer is something the people around you understand. That's an idea that's worth mulling. When people have cancer, you can wear ribbons, offer a shoulder to cry on, or take over meals. But the underlying assumption is generally, “This too shall pass,” and, “Things will get better.”

Alice's friends, professional associates and family largely don't seem to be able to accept a diminished version of the person they know. Many drop away, although there's a fascinating portrait of one of the daughters, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, who seems to be able to understand her mother better through her illness. The movie is a good reminder about how family members can surprise us when they have a loved one with Alzheimer's, in both good and bad ways. It's also worth reflecting on the subtle points related to Alice's career, brain and wealth, mainly the idea that her losses are more tragic than someone who is working class or less educated. Make of that what you will.

At one point in the movie, Alice visits a memory care facility, and I thought it was a positive depiction. Residents are shown interacting one-on-one with staff members, one is holding a doll, and the healthcare worker is compassionate. But it's also clear Alice looks around and cannot envision herself there. Neither the book nor the movie is about long-term care as an industry as much as it is about one family's struggle to accept how a beloved matriarch is fading away. It gives filmgoers, whether they work in healthcare or not, a lot to consider.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's Long-Term Care News. Follow her @TigerLEN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.