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By: Sunanna Bhasin/Opinions Columnist
Still Alice is a critically acclaimed 2014 film about a middle-aged linguistics professor, Alice (Julianne Moore), who is diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her life had always been about words and communication, and for it to become about remembering how to articulate basic sentences to a classroom full of students is a frightening new reality. One can only imagine how devastating it is to lose one’s language. While the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are widely known — extreme memory loss, disorientation, and loss of speech — Still Alice provides the perspectives of the afflicted individual as well as her family and friends and the difficult decisions both parties have to make after the diagnosis.
The movie goes a step further and recognizes the stigma that still exists in regards to neurodegenerative disorders by using brutally honest dialogue. After getting her official diagnosis, Alice says that she wishes she had cancer. At first, this may seem a shock to the audience considering the severe nature of the sickness, but when Alice explains that cancer victims are not looked on as social outcasts and that they receive support in multitudes, the viewer can sympathize and realize the indescribable isolation Alzheimer’s patients feel.
Having a family member with dementia myself, this film really opened my eyes as to how quick the progression of the disease is and how people beyond the patient are affected to a degree that truly tests their love in immeasurable ways.
In the film, Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) has to make the heart wrenching decision to leave his wife for an incredible work opportunity in a different city. On the surface, this seems like a selfish thing to do — to choose work over family is hard to understand as a viewer. Yet, the movie succeeds in keeping the audience from picking sides. Rather than see it as a one-dimensional, straightforward situation in which the husband should obviously stay, take care of his wife, and sacrifice everything else in the process, Still Alice challenges viewers to appreciate the complexities presented by Alzheimer’s. While watching the film, one begins to wonder if it matters who the caretaker is if the one being cared for cannot recognize his or her surroundings or family anymore. If the breadwinner in the family must leave to provide financial support, is he or she being selfish or simply doing his or her best to keep the sufferers comfortable? Being in our own bubble and having no experience taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, it is very easy to judge families that fall apart when a member is afflicted. Still Alice dares viewers to take on the role of a significant other or a child of an Alzheimer’s patient to truly see what the everyday reality is for a family dealing with it.
Despite the depressing, tear-jerking nature of the film, it ends on a hopeful and positive note. Yes, memories do comprise a large part of our lives. Think about how many times we reminisce with our loved ones. However, there’s one thing that comes out ahead — memories or not, recognition or not. At the end of the film, Alice’s daughter (Kristen Stewart) reads her a story and asks her ailing mother what it was about. At this stage of the disease, Alice is hardly able to speak, but she is able to get one word out even as she struggles: love.
Still Alice teaches us that while not everyone is dealt the greatest cards, love is enough to make life worth living even when it becomes hellish. Even throughout the movie, Alice would say how she’s had a great life, full of language and teaching, which she would never trade. Being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s may have been a horrific shock, but it didn’t change the amazing life that she was able to live in the years leading up to it. In this way, Still Alice does not sugarcoat or romanticize the devastating reality of Alzheimer’s; rather, it reminds us all to live in the moment and love deeply because we never know when we could lose everything that matters most.