Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My mother once said to me, "I feel like my brain was programed to last for 75 years and now I'm 80 with a useless brain." It was actually a few more years before the rest of us started to notice evidence of big memory lapses and the start of a long term decline into dementia that ended when my mother was almost 92. I've often thought that her statement about a useless brain meant she was aware of something not right going on in her head. It was doubly poignant to me because she had suffered from mental illness throughout her life. To be lucid about the shifting nature of her thoughts was so curious. It was a comfort to read Still Alice.

The story is told from Alice's perspective. Her life as a Harvard professor, high-powered neuropsychologist, internationally famous for her research in linguistics is all drastically and dramatically changed when she loses a word and the losses start quickly piling up. It is a fictional account, but realistic. So many of the experiences described rang true. Lisa Genova apparently has some background with Alzheimer's disease and access to current research and treatments. It did comfort me to be reminded that there could be a dignity and a quality to life even without an intellectual component.

I'd rather not experience it first hand (not surprisingly, a constant fear). I was intrigued by her plan (set up in her Blackberry, no less) to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills when she reached a certain point of decline. That's definitely my solution to long term care insurance. But then she forgot to die and that wasn't so bad. Still don't want to experience it though.

I did find one thing unbelievable, however. After her diagnosis, Alice stops settling for frozen yogurt and starts eating ice cream again. So in one scene, she goes into a Ben and Jerry's scoop shop, gets three (that's three) scoops of chocolate peanut butter cup in a cone, pays with a five dollar bill and leaves the change in the tip jar. Please. Five dollars for three scoops of Ben and Jerry's and change left over. Never happened, not in 2005. Maybe I missed that it was another sign of her failing ability to cope--that she actually gave them a twenty dollar bill and left the change.

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