In the weeks following the Academy Awards, it’s not uncommon for little-known movies to get an “Oscars boost,” especially when they are honored in high profile categories.
This year, one movie that has received a great deal of post-Oscars interest is “Still Alice,” thanks to Julianne Moore winning Best Actress for her work in the film. Moore portrays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old Harvard linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Films that depict characters living with Alzheimer’s are nothing new, as fans of 2004’s “The Notebook” can attest.
What sets “Still Alice” apart is that the protagonist is among the estimated 200,000 Americans diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s – meaning, Alzheimer’s disease that is diagnosed in people younger than 65.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early onset affects only 5 percent of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s; the association states that many people with early onset are in their 40s and 50s like Moore’s character in the film. Because these are not people who fit the traditional profile of an Alzheimer’s patient, it may be harder for their families to access the right intervention and care options. That’s a problem that must be addressed.
People in their 40s and 50s have careers, and some are still raising children; more commonly, their children are young adults. As a staff member at a local memory care community, Villagio at Capriana in Brea, I am incredibly familiar with the plight of families who have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s.
However, our residents are primarily over age 65; their careers are behind them and their children are grown. Many were even able to get acquainted with their grandchildren before their symptoms became severe. For the families of early onset Alzheimer’s patients, the reality is very different.
Like Alice Howland in the film, a person with early onset Alzheimer’s disease may be forced to resign from employment years earlier than they had planned to. This may cause an undue financial burden on the family.
The career may be maintained for a time after the diagnosis, but that is certainly not without its challenges. As for family life, children gradually become caregivers at an age when they may have burgeoning careers of their own – unless they are younger, in which case the stress of caring for a parent can interfere with academic careers, social lives and extracurricular activities. Clearly, the families of early onset Alzheimer’s patients are in need of more resources, better advocacy and heightened awareness.
“Awareness” may seem like cliché terminology in an era where every disorder and marginalized group calls for it, but it’s especially important for early onset Alzheimer’s because the symptoms can so easily be misinterpreted.
Think about it: If a 45-year-old woman with a demanding career tells her physician she is experiencing memory loss, having trouble concentrating and feels depressed or isolated, there’s a chance she may not be taken seriously right away. In one conversation that addressed the importance of the movie “Still Alice,” a woman living with early onset Alzheimer’s stated it was likely she had been suffering from the disease for seven years before it was diagnosed.
If early onset Alzheimer’s receives the awareness it deserves, cases like that can become the exception, rather than the rule. At Villagio, my colleagues and I are committed to improving the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s, no matter the age of diagnosis. Hopefully, “Still Alice” will prompt many people to join us.
Brent Rodriguez is the marketing director at Villagio at Capriana, a memory care community on the campus of the Oakmont of Capriana retirement community in Brea. The community can be reached at (714) 252-7901.
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