Friday, January 21, 2011

The Fragile Mind

Forgetting has been on my mind a lot lately.  My grandmother is suffering from advancing dementia.  A number of my friends have parents and grandparents who suffered or are suffering from various forms of dementia. The Globe and Mail last year did a very good series on dementia and has had recurring articles on the health and social crises dementia is presenting to our government and society.  

The G&M also recently published a little blurb about why Lisa Genova writes. Lisa Genova is the author of Still Alice, a beautiful and poignant story about Alzheimer’s disease.  Her grandmother became ill with Alzheimer’s.  What’s really interesting about Genova is that she never intended to be a writing.  She has a PhD in neuroscience and was working in the health care industry. 

There are lots of stories out there that centre around Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.  What makes Still Alice so different is Genova tells the story from the perspective of the Alzheimer’s patient.  The patient isn’t old either.  Alice Howland is in her 50’s.  She’s a successful Harvard professor with grown children and a husband.

With a back drop of Boston and Harvard university, clearly it’s Genova’s love of the two that informs Alice’s passion for the places, Still Alice proceeds at an easy pace from when Alice starts to notice something is a bit off, her rationalization as to why, the realization of what is really happening and then her not so slow descent.

It’s also about family, from the perspective of Alice as well.  Her husband, at first, comes off as sympathetic, a man in denial and willing to do anything, research anything to prove the diagnosis wrong.  When reality sets in for him though, it is clear that he is totally incapable of accepting it or making his own sacrifices to ensure her care.  As Alice comes to grip with her diagnosis and the disease progresses, we see Alice trying to reconnect her family before it's too late.  In the end, Alice’s daughters step up and those moments are some of the most beautiful in the book. 

Reading Still Alice was not easy by any stretch. It’s sad and frustrating.  However, the one thing it gave me was perspective.  So, when I spend time with my grandmother (which isn’t as often as I should), my Nan, I am no less sad, just less frustrated.  I try and make the most out of that time, when she has her moments of clarity.  I think she knows exactly what’s happening to her but as long as I can make her laugh, I’m along for the ride with her.