Thursday, July 31, 2014

Still Alice- A Poignant Look at Alzheimer's Disease

Still Alice
by Lisa Genova
New York: Pocket Books, 2009

Still Alice, a New York Times bestseller by Lisa Genova, Ph.D., is an example of fiction at its finest – a riveting work that educates, creates empathy, and causes one to think deeply. Alice Rowland is on the cusp of her fiftieth birthday, a psychology professor at Harvard and mom of three grown children, when she starts to forget things. She attributes it to impending menopause, but when she can’t remember how to get home from Harvard Square she begins to panic. Her doctor puts her through all sorts of tests and that is when the nightmare truly begins – a diagnosis of Early Alzheimer’s disease. 

“She wished she had cancer instead. She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she’d have something she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she’d be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.”

Still Alice is told from Alice’s perspective, as she begins to lose her faculties, and most painfully, is aware of the transition, of the letting go. This makes the story all the more powerful. It explores the changes in relationships with her husband, her children, and her colleagues at work. 

There are some troubling moral issues in this work. Alice creates a list on her Blackberry of five basic questions that she is supposed to answer every day. If the day comes that she cannot answer them, her plan is to take an overdose of sleeping pills. Her oldest daughter Anna is having difficulty conceiving. After her mother’s diagnosis, she has genetic testing and discovers that she, too, will most likely develop early Alzheimer’s. She makes the decision to have embryo’s tested for the gene before IVF implantation in order to guarantee that her children will not carry the gene. 

Overall, however, this is actually a profoundly pro-life book celebrating the value of a life even when the mind is in decline. Still Alice, endorsed by the National Alzheimer’s Association, invites you into the mind of someone suffering from this dreaded disease. Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, brings a unique perspective and expertise to this subject. After reading this book, you will never look at someone with Alzheimer’s in the same way again. 

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