Alzheimer’s disease mostly occurs in people who are older than 65. However, there is a small group – less than 5% of people with Alzheimer’s – that has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. About this group that is aged between 30 and 60 years old, Lisa Genova has written a powerful book: Still Alice. In 2014, a movie was made out of this New York Times bestseller that starred Julianne Moore, who recently won an Oscar for her outstanding role.
In Still Alice, we meet Alice Howland, a cognitive psychology professor and an expert in linguistics, who has a successful husband and three wonderful children. In other words, she has a perfect career and is leading a perfect life. Until one day, at the end of a simple run around the neighbourhood, she suddenly feels lost. “She wanted to continue walking but stood frozen instead. She didn’t know where she was.” Luckily, it soon all comes back to here, but later on – after a lot of tests – it turns out that this was the first real sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The reader gets to know Alice just before the first signs of illness show up, so when she feels lost for the first time, you experience it with her. We see Alice as a successful woman that suddenly starts making silly, public mistakes. Consequently, this slowly starts to make her feel vulnerable and insecure.
After her diagnosis, she needs to make some painful decisions; soon she won’t be able to teach anymore, which she loved so much. One time, Alice even attends her own class and the teacher doesn’t show up. But then some of her students notice that she was there all along, just sitting there, waiting.
From then on, when her heavy work load disappears, Alice starts to feel lonely. She spends a lot of time in her office and makes schedules in order not to forget what needs to be done. At home, she starts using post-its, but soon they are everywhere. When Alice starts looking for something, she soon forgets what it actually was she was looking for and the house turns into a huge mess.
But Alice takes things into her own hands; she finds the support she needs in the early-onset Alzheimer’s disease support group that she has created herself. The hospital didn’t provide this kind of support group; they only had a support group for family members. But Alice finds out that it is great to talk to people who have to face the same battle of memory loss every day.
Lisa Genova has painted a very thorough picture of life with Alzheimer’s disease; we follow Alice step by step, season by season and notice the mistakes she makes and how the disease slowly takes away her personality. But despite it all, Alice is still Alice. Genova clearly has done a lot of research, which she also states in the preface to the novel, and with all this information, she has created a person (and a family) that could be you and me (and yours and mine) or just living around the corner.
The novel shows that anyone can suddenly be confronted with the disease and that it needs all the attention it can get. It also points out that it is a genetic disease; if someone in your family has it, then the chances are higher that you might get it – later in life – as well. If you haven’t read the novel yet and are curious about what it is like to have Alzheimer’s disease (at a young age), then this is a novel I would strongly recommend. It contains an important and beautifully crafted story.
This article was written for CultNoise and published on 18.10.2015.