Friday, July 17, 2015

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

This book has been on my shelf for several years, waiting patiently for me to be ready to read it.


The story is told from the point of view of Alice, a professor at Harvard. She is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. We watch as she and her family struggle with the diagnosis. We watch as she loses her capability to remember and process things as she descends into dementia.

I watched my mom descend into dementia too, which is why I knew this book would be hard and why it's taken me seven years to read it.

My mom's situation was slightly different, just as everyone's experience with any illness is unique. My mom had a stroke in August of 2003. At the time she'd been living alone, managing her very brittle diabetes with frequent blood sugar checks and administering her own insulin at each meal by determining the appropriate dose based on her blood sugar levels.

The stroke affected her memory, judgment and language. When she was in the hospital right after the stroke, and my brother and I were with her, she asked why people kept sticking her with pins. She didn't remember that she even had diabetes, let alone that she had been managing it on her own. At that moment, my brother and I knew that that was the end of her living alone.

In the following year and a half, she recovered some memory and language, and reached somewhat of a plateau. She remembered that she had diabetes, but couldn't remember exactly how to manage it.

And then her memory started getting worse. Her neurologist started her on Aricept and Nameda, just like Alice did in the book, but they didn't seem to help much. Every time we saw the neurologist, she'd administer the ten question test, asking mom if she knew where she was, knew who the president was, knew what season it was. Mom did worse every time.

This was abnormal from a stroke recovery point of view. They did an MRI and she hadn't had another "event" (stroke). Dementia seemed to be setting in. The neurologist didn't make the diagnosis of Alzheimer's. At some point, she said, dementia is dementia, no matter what the cause.

For my mom the dementia progressed relatively quickly. In the last three months of her life she forgot how to use the bathroom. She forgot who we were. She talked about waiting for her parents (who had been dead for decades) coming to come pick her up. At the end, she slipped into a coma and died a few days later.

It was heartbreaking to watch my mom lose her memory, her faculties, and ultimately her life.

It's hard for anyone close to someone with dementia, as Still Alice illustrates so well. Lisa Genova sheds light on Alzheimer's and living with dementia, illuminating the struggle for Alice herself, as well as her family. Well done.

Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about two other books about dementia, The 36-Hour Day and Contented Dementia. You can read that post here (sorry for the copying and pasting):

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