By Heather Sawitsky / Posted on March 6th, 2015
Heather Sawitsky, of White Oak Cottages, writes a moving piece about the movie, Still Alice. White Oak Cottages are Assisted Living Green House homes where people living with dementia are creative, resourceful and whole. By creating an environment that is small and warm, and where people are deeply known, The Green House model is a best practice.
Still Alice, a movie based on Lisa Genova’s novel about a linguistics professor who develops early onset Alzheimer’s, is now in wide release. For those who love people with the disease, and for those who are hoping to avoid this disease (which by my count includes everyone) the question is, “Why would anyone want to see this movie?”
The answer might be because the film adaptation is a poignant and dignified presentation of a disease that is usually described in ways that exaggerate its symptoms and stigmatize its victims. Or it may be because Still Alice presents the experience of the degenerative disease through the eyes of Alice, reminding us that a person with Alzheimer’s still strives for normalcy, involvement, and emotional connection. Or it may be because the wide-angle view of the film speaks to how all of us will need to learn to master loss: of physical abilities, loved ones, and sometimes, memory.
Julianne Moore, who plays the professor Alice Howland, turns in a masterful performance. Determined not to “make it up”, Ms. Moore spent months researching Alzheimer’s disease, speaking with clinicians, women with early onset Alzheimer’s, and family members. She also underwent the same battery of cognitive tests given to those with suspected Alzheimer’s. Her performance carries the film and has earned her an Oscar® nomination.
There is one other element that sets this film apart. One of its directors, Richard Glatzer, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. There are many parallels between ALS and Alzheimer’s. Both are neurodegenerative diseases that slowly, incrementally rob a person of their abilities. With ALS, patients lose their ability to use their muscles, thus depriving them of their ability to walk, stand, use their hands, speak, and ultimately, breathe. With Alzheimer’s, people are slowly robbed of their ability to find words, remain oriented, practice their professions, and recognize their loved ones.
Still Alice is a powerful, but restrained look at one woman who is trying to hold onto her identity and her place in the world, knowing that each week she will be able to do something less well, but not knowing what the next loss will be. Richard Glatzer’s keen understanding of this terror and his determination to live a full life notwithstanding, help make this a film that will inform and inspire.
By Heather Sawitsky / Posted on May 14th, 2013
Susan could no longer deny she had a problem when her mother started to call her at 2:00 in the morning, asking her when she was coming to see her.
Her mother, Molly, is a vibrant, outgoing woman who raised three children and worked as a legal secretary, fully enjoying the job. She loves her family and being with people. Molly also has an impressive command of trivia questions.
Of the siblings, Susan lived nearest to her parents, and so she saw them the most often. Several years ago, she noticed that her mother seemed unfocused. Short, routine errands to nearby stores took hours. But her dad assured her that all was well.
Then Susan’s dad passed away, and Molly lived alone.
Susan assumed more responsibility for helping her mother, a role she termed as “Boss of the Bills and the Pills”. She continued to worry that her mother was “off” and she shared her concerns with her siblings, a difficult and emotional task. They were not convinced that Molly’s problems warranted taking her out of the home that she loved.
Susan increasingly worried about her mother’s confusion about time and space. She started getting calls from her mother in the middle of the night, asking her when she would come to visit. Neighbors called her to report that Molly was having difficulty driving. As Susan reports it, “I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach 24 hours a day.” The final straw was when Molly fell in her home and ended up in the hospital.
After the fall, the family moved Molly to an assisted living residence. Molly seemed to adjust to her new living situation, but Susan saw that her mother had lost the sparkle in her eyes. For a woman who was always busy and with friends, Molly now did not have much to do. She spent a lot of time alone in her room.
The staff at the assisted living residence reported that Molly wandered and had great difficulty finding her apartment. She left her stove on so frequently that the residence disabled it. Then Molly fell in her unit, fracturing her neck and nose. Molly did not use her emergency wrist pendant, so an aide found her long after the fact.
Molly was treated in a hospital, transferred to a rehab facility, and then she went back to her assisted living unit. Given her mental confusion, the residence required the family to hire 24 -hour care, at $600 per day. The family quickly decided they needed another solution.
Susan looked at memory care units near her home in Needham. When she walked into White Oak Cottages, she was surprised that it felt like a real home. Residents were coming and going through the living room, the smell of fresh laundry came from the dryer, and the staff was preparing dinner in the kitchen. Susan knew how much her mother wanted to be around other people, and she thought, “This is perfect!”
In September 2012 Molly moved into White Oak Cottages. Daily life is now much closer to what it was like when she was living in her family home. She has her own room to decorate and she can watch her television whenever she wants. Her children visit her, some having dinner with her, others watching movies with her in her room. They all appreciate the ability to focus on Molly, rather than on her care.
When Molly’s family is not visiting, she likes being in the action in the living room and playing word games. Molly is the recognized champ of the trivia contests. And she has made new friends. Susan enjoys the way the residents care for each other. “The residents ….are like family. They look out for each other.”
Since Molly has moved to White Oak, her medical condition has stabilized. According to Susan, “the spark is back in her eye”. Her favorite day is Saturday, when families visit with children and dogs. Susan says that the high level of activity is just what her mother needs. “She is thriving. I have nothing but positive things to say about White Oak. For me, it is peace of mind. When you walk out of White Oak and feel that all is well for your mother, it is worth everything.”
To learn more about White Oaks Cottages, of Fox Hill Villages in Westwood, MA, visit: http://whiteoakcottages.com/