According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, more than 500,000 Canadians are either diagnosed or living with Alzheimer’s but many Canadians don’t know much about it. That’s why the University of Calgary recently hosted a screening and Q&A to help raise awareness. 

The Jan. 19 screening of Still Alice at the Globe Cinema set the stage for a conversation with Dr. Jayna Holroyd-Leduc of the U of C Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Still-Alice 2Still Alice signifies a greater struggle for people living with Alzheimer’s. Photo courtesy of Linda Kallerus and Sony Pictures Classics.

The cinema filled up in about a half hour after doors opened and was packed by the start of the event. Distinct chatter could be heard among the audience accompanied by the smell of fresh popcorn. Shortly afterwards, the lights dimmed and silence followed.

The movie stars Julianne Moore who plays Alice Howard, a linguistics professor at Columbia University who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, a form of dimentia, at age 50. The film charts her rapid cognitive decline.

When we are first introduced to Alice, she is at the prime of her career. But when she begins to forget seemingly small things, she knows something is wrong. She loses her way, forgets appointments, she gets fuzzy. All too soon, the gripping effects of Alzheimer’s lead to her eventual decline in awareness and mobility.Still Alice 1.1Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s today. Doctors and researchers are still optimistic that one day an break through will be made. Photo by Sam Nar.

Although a work of fiction, Howland’s story resonates strongly with the reality that many Alzheimer’s victims face.

Dr. Jayna Holroyd-Leduc of the U of C Hotchkiss Brain Institute studies the realities of Alzheimer's with her research on dementia and seniors. Once the movie conluded, she answered questions from the audience.

The facts

“It can impact the ability to work, social interactions and the ability to do day-to-day activities,” explains Holroyd-Leduc. “Most dementias are progressive so there will be even more difficulties with their memory and ... spatial relations.”

Although illnesses such as cancer and sclerosis get the recognitions they deserve, Alzheimer's is, ironically, often forgotten.

Every year, 25,000 Canadians are victims of new cases. But the disease is more than just numbers and facts.

“I think it's a very good event because it brings the community together,” explains Padmaja Genesh, learning specialist for the Alzheimer’s Society of Calgary.

“[Still Alice] changes the common understanding of dementia — it raises the awareness of this disease,” says Genesh.

For any family dealing with the illness, it can be overwhelming and the situation can be compounded by a medical system stretched to the limit.

Sarah Plouffe was one of the first to enter the screening. An avid fan of both the movie and the book by Lisa Genova, Plouffe says she and her mother attended the event to learn about new research in the field.

“Actually, my Gran, she has Alzheimer's. Just watching what happened to my Gran, it's [Still Alice] very accurate," Plouffe comments. “It’s super emotional.”

The scene where Howland recites a poem to the Alzheimer’s Society struck many in the audience. The poem, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, talks about “an art of losing.”

“I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next,” says Howland, the main character of Still Alice. “We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. But this is not who we are — this is our disease.”

In that moment, the movie seemed to have completely connected with the crowd.

An afterthought

Following the screening, Holroyd-Leduc participated in a brief Q&A. She answered a few preselected questions about Alzheimer's disease as well as questions from the audience.

Still Alice 3“The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” A quote from the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. Photo courtesy of Jojo Whilden Sony Pictures Classics.

According to Holroyd-Leduc, it is difficult to assess whether or not an individual has Alzheimer's. It is even harder to diagnose an early-onset patient because of the rarity.

“Some people develop mild cognitive impairment, but not all develop dementia ... most types of dementia develop from aging, later in life,” says Holroyd-Leduc.

Diagnoses are based on an individual’s medical history.

When asked by the audience, Holroyd-Leduc explained there is no cure for Alzheimer's and the cause is just as confusing. Scientists are investing both money and effort to ensure a treatment is found, but it isn’t easy.

With our aging generation, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in genetics is becoming more apparent although physical injuries may also play a role.

But dementia is not just about memory loss. It’s about remembering the love of those who can’t remember it for themselves. The kind of grace, expressed through sacrifice and compassion in the Hollywood movie is, at the moment, the best to offer to those with Alzheimer’s.

“Like any disease, it has a cause, it has a progression, and it could have a cure. My greatest wish is that my children ... do not have to face what I am facing,” says Alice Howard, a sentiment that likely echoed with many attending the event.

 

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