"Still Alice" Provides Glimpse into Living with Early Onset Alzheimer's
What would it be like to be 50, at the top of your career, and then receive a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s? That’s the story line in Still Alice, a compelling fictional book written by Lisa Genova, who is a neuroscientist.
The book is written from the perspective of Dr. Alice Howland, a Harvard professor who is a leading scholar in her field. Alice’s husband, John, is a Harvard researcher. The parents of three adult children (Anna, Tom and Lydia), Alice and John are depicted as leading a busy, but fulfilling life.
The plot starts innocently enough. John has misplaced his glasses, and Alice helps him find them. After sending John on his way, Alice admits in the narrative that she has misplaced things periodically herself and also is at a loss for words at times. She attributes these issues to menopause. But while on a run near her home, Alice finds that she is lost in an area that she’d travelled daily for 25 years. That experience prompts her to see her doctor, which was the first step in getting a diagnosis.
I found the book especially interesting in seeing how a highly educated person whose life has been built around the training of and use of her mind experiences the mental blanks that Alzheimer’s creates. You can feel Alice’s frustration grow as the dementia takes hold. You also watch Alice have to redefine herself when she is forced to give up teaching due to behaviors caused by Alzheimer’s that result n poor class evaluations from her students.
Still Alice really captures the daily struggles that individuals, families, friends and colleagues go through in dealing with the disease. You see Alice become increasingly “invisible” to her colleagues at Harvard once her dementia is announced. You also see her try to plan for her own demise when she can no longer remember key things, such as her youngest daughter’s birthday.
I also found it interesting to see how Alice’s family deals with her battle with the disease. For instance, in one scene, Alice is planning on attending Lydia’s play. She keeps trying to remember what time the play is scheduled to start, but keeps forgetting. Alice decides to put the time into her Blackberry, but some of her children feel that Alice needs to try to remember the time instead of using the Blackberry as a crutch. The book also describes the decision faced by Alice’s children as to whether they will get the genetic testing to see if they carry the gene that is linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The book also gives you a first-hand account into the challenges that Alzheimer’s brings to a marriage. John makes some adjustments to help Alice (such as joining her on regular runs so that she won’t get lost). You also see John really struggle with watching his wife’s highly educated mind deteriorate. He also has to face weighing her increasing needs against his own professional opportunities and ambitions.
The interview with Lisa Genova at the back of the book provides a great window into the author’s intention in writing the book. Noting that her main inspiration was her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s in her 80s, Genova wrote, “I was in graduate school at the time, getting my Ph.D. in neuroscience in Harvard. And so the neuroscientist in me wondered what was going on in her brain….I kept wondering: What is having Alzheimer’s disease like from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s? My grandmother was too far along to communicate an answer to this question, but someone with early-onset, would be able to. This was the seed for Still Alice.”
Still Alice would be a great read for a book group, especially since there are some great discussion questions at the end of the book. I can also believe caregivers and health care professionals would really benefit from this book. This book is a worthy addition to your library.