Reel Caregiving: Glimpses of Caregiving – Still Alice

Still Alice (2014), is a riveting movie showing the family caregiving context for early-onset Alzheimer’s. It depicts the many aspects of Alice’s life, living with the disease and her family. It shows how family members collaborate for caregiving in the ways that they best can.

Anyone with experience of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s will recognize the peculiar manifestations, the initial random lapses in memory, the bewildering disorientation that ensues and the precipitous sense of foreboding that comes with diagnosis.

Alice Howland, a successful linguistic professor gets diagnosed with Familial Alzheimer’s.

John, her husband, chooses to go on with his life, delegating the care of Alice to others, although not entirely. John was there for Alice to a limited extent during the diagnosis. John chooses to prioritize his career over Alice’s care when he decides to take a job in another city. He asks Alice to move with him, but she refuses as she does not want to leave all that is familiar to her. Keeping dementia patients in familiar surroundings helps them to feel more comfortable. So, to adjust to a new environment would be challenging and likely frightening.

Anna, the eldest daughter and Tom the son, check in with their mother as often as they can but are unable to do so on a daily basis due to their personal and professional commitments. Anna doesn’t handle Alice’s illness as well as her younger sister Lydia and Tom is occupied with his impressive career as a doctor.

Lydia, the youngest daughter, a free-spirited woman moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress but puts her life on hold and decides to move across the country to be with her mother. As this suggests, Lydia abandons many aspects of her own life to care for mother.

In a way Lydia becomes her primary caregiver.

Alice is closer to Lydia than to her other two children. We see Alice “interfering” in Lydia’s life. These conversations take place both before and after the diagnosis. Post-diagnosis, Lydia objects to Alice using her illness to get Lydia to do what she wants. In close relationships, there are indeed times when intimacy borders on intrusiveness. Alice’s relationship with Lydia is contrasting with her relationship with her older daughter, Anna. After Alice’s diagnosis, the older children also get tested and Anna tests positive for the disease and this as a caregiver also being inflicted with the disease is a battle for her.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia (or any other serious illness, for that matter) can take a huge toll, interfering with work, family life, relaxation, and long-term goals. Reactions on the part of caregivers span a spectrum, from complete devotion to complete abandonment—letting someone else cope and disengaging from the situation. Of course, one chooses the extent to which a loved one’s condition can interfere with their lives.

Caring for Alice involves a sacrifice that Lydia is willing to make and John her husband, is not. John delegates the bulk of Alice’s care to others and leaves her for long stretches as she faces her inevitable decline. One gets the feeling that Lydia would have come home whatever her circumstances. The situation faced by John, Lydia, and the other siblings captures the uncertainty that confronts all caregivers: how much of their life should one relinquish to care for a loved one?

Everyone does the best they can do for their loved ones, and what can be offered is subject to financial, situational, and emotional recourses. Still Alice is clear about this; John remains sympathetic. Lydia is closest to her mother and therefore is more involved. This doesn’t mean John should be condemned for his choices.

The movie shows relatable scenes of acts of love combined with dedicated caregiving and financial stability provided by the family for the best possible palliative care.

Still Alice is a true story of how the patient deals with the many aspects of living with the disease and how her caregivers are with her every step of the way in whatever ways that they possibly can be.

In our next segment on Reel Caregiving, we will explore caregiving in another movie. Watch this space!

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