When Scott Kirschenbaum, who has long been an activist for elders, met Lee Gorewitz, something compelling happened. Kirschenbaum felt drawn to the still dynamic resident of Traditions Unit, a care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Their meeting, combined with Kirschenbaum’s need to show the world what the life of one person who has Alzheimer’s is like, resulted in the PBS documentary “You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t.”
Kirschbaum filmed Gorewitz as she went through her days in the memory unit. She is shown interacting with staff and other residents, as well as enjoying time in her room with her current “family,” a group of stuffed animals.
The film draws the reader into Gorwitz’ world as she struggles to remember words to describe her memories and her feelings. Gorwitz is, at turns, funny , kind, matter-of-fact or rude. There’s no warning when she changes demeanor. In one scene, she walks by a resident who is slumped in her wheelchair fast asleep, points and says flatly, “that one looks like its dead.” Gorwitz keeps walking by residents, then bends to tenderly pat the arm of another dozing resident. She lives in the moment, rather like a stream of consciousness poem.
Gorwitz shows no uneasiness about Kirschenbaum as he follows her around with his camera. Indeed, she seems to consider him a guest receiving a tour of her home. When Kirschenbaum asks a question from behind the camera, Gorwitz repeats the question flawlessly. However the answer she gives after repeating the question comes out as a string of unrelated words.
Though she often laughs, Gorwitz’ confusion and fear over what’s happening to her are palpable. Her frustration about “losing it” when she looks for a word or phrase is evident at times, though at other times, she doesn’t seem aware that she’s making no sense to the listener.
Upon hearing an old, familiar song, she dances as she snaps her fingers with vigor and rhythm, thoroughly enjoying herself. This scene gives us a poignant glimpse of the vital woman she has been.
Some seemingly small things are enormous to Gorwitz. She shows her visitor some of her favorite clothes and points to her name written clearly on the labels. She is visibly pleased. Yes, this really is her dress. She’s in the moment and she knows the object she holds belongs to her and that her name is Lee Gorwitz.
The film’s title comes from Gorwitz’ own words during a scene where she looks at the camera and pointedly says “You’re looking at me like I live here and I don’t.”
“You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t” succeeds in giving us an intimate look into Gorwitz’ life as she lives it with Alzheimer’s disease. Part of the Emmy Award winning PBS series Independent Lens, it will air March 29 on PBS. Check your local listings for the time.