- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

If you don’t know someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the odds are that you almost certainly will. According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 5 million Americans over age 65 suffer from the disease, and with an aging population, those figures will only increase.

An even more sobering statistic is the younger age at which dementia may set in. Many sufferers are in their 40s; most of those are women.

Lisa Genova’s book “Still Alice” is now a major motion picture starring Julianne Moore in her Golden Globe-winning role as a New York linguistics professor who, at the improbable age of 50, is handed the diagnosis.

“One of the reasons we made this character 50 years old is that early onset is about 15 percent of the Alzheimer’s population; it’s not the majority,” Miss Moore said in an interview with The Washington Times. “But [Ms. Genova] set it that way deliberately, because so often the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are misconstrued as symptoms of aging, when in fact dementia is not in fact a normal part of aging; dementia is a disease.”

In the film, which opens Friday in the District of Columbia, Alice begins forgetting little things like dates and words, at first attributing the memory problems to menopause. Her family is as shocked by the diagnosis as she is.

Miss Moore emphasizes that the subjective nature of the book shows a person experiencing a disease that is often shown in film and literature from the point of view of a caregiver.

“I think we’ve seen this story from the point of view of a family member, a caregiver, but we’ve never seen it from the inside out,” she said. “Really talking about what it feels like and what the concept of decline feels like, and I think it was a really unique exploration of that.”

Miss Moore sought to educate herself on the subject of early-onset Alzheimer’s by watching HBO documentaries on the subject, speaking to specialists and attending support groups for women even younger than herself who are afflicted.

“One of the things that I said to [directors] Richard [Glatzer] and Wash [Westmoreland] is that I didn’t want to represent anything on camera that I hadn’t actually seen and I hadn’t observed,” Miss Moore said.

“They now call it ‘younger onset,’” she said of those whose illnesses are diagnosed well before age 65. “One of [these women] was diagnosed at 45,” she said. Cheering up, she said, “She spent her 50th birthday on set. She’s got red hair, and we look very similar.”

Miss Moore emphasized that many who are on the front lines of the fight against Alzheimer’s have personal stakes in the matter. In preparing for the role, she spoke with Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns, head of the Alzheimer’s Association and whose mother and grandmother suffered from the disease.

“This is something that I was not familiar with at all,” Miss Moore said. “I haven’t had an experience of a family member that’s had Alzheimer’s disease.”

In the film, Alice soon becomes no longer able to give class lectures at her university. Once-familiar environments become completely unknown. (In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Alice cannot locate a bathroom in the family’s shore home in time.) Eventually, she must be reminded of the faces and names of her own children.

Since films are rarely — if ever — shot in sequence, Miss Moore’s preparations and research paid off on set as she was able to call up the particular point in Alice’s decline to suit the scene in question.

“I tried to be as familiar as I could with each and every stage,” she said. “I wanted to know what her actions would be, what her physical actions would be like.”

Through the magic of moviemaking, a March stroll on a Long Island beach with Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia, became a summertime outing.

“We were really cold. If you look back, I think both of our arms are crossed,” Miss Moore said, laughing amiably.

A disease like Alzheimer’s is certainly a challenge for the sufferer, but as much, if not more, for the family and friends who watch a once-vibrant and intelligent person gradually become a ghost of her former self. In the film, Alice’s husband, John, portrayed by Alec Baldwin, is at first extremely supportive of her, telling her he is there with her through thick and thin. But the endurance of Alice’s failing mind takes a toll not only on John but also on the couple’s three adult children.

“At the beginning of the movie, he says, ‘You know, we’re going to go through this together, and I’m going to be with you,’” Miss Moore said. “And at a certain point he’s not able to. It’s like the person that he loves [is gone]. It’s just not fair to watch it happen. Alec just portrays it in such a beautiful way that it is so compassionate and with so much love that your heart breaks. You realize that this guy can’t handle it.”

Miss Moore is thankful that the film is raising public awareness for Alzheimer’s and is quick to point out that a diagnosis of degenerative disease doesn’t mean that life ends. To wit, “Still Alice” co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and is unable to speak. He relies on an iPad application on set to give direction to actors and crew.

“Richard made this in the face of [his] own dealing with degenerative disease,” Miss Moore said of Mr. Glatzer’s ALS. “So I think that at the end of the day, [“Still Alice”] is a very emotional film, but I think it leaves you feeling hopeful. I feel like ‘Still Alice’ is really about life and mortality. I think that the movie is a celebration of who we are and what we value and who we love, and it’s made in not the spirit of diminishment but in how to live your life and be as present as you can possibly be.”

Ever one for projects with a conscience, Miss Moore will be seen next in “Freeheld,” which chronicles the real-life tale of a New Jersey police officer with a lung cancer diagnosis who fought to leave her pension and benefits to her domestic partner, Stacy.

Asked whether she keeps any mementos from her films, Miss Moore said she does indeed maintain a treasure trove of notated scripts of her projects in her basement. “Everything that I need to reference in [my] movies, that’s what I go back to,” she said. “I guess they’ll be there for my children to deal with when I’m no longer here.”

Among the notated works in the basement is her script for the 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” in which Miss Moore co-starred as the ostentatious, artistic Maude. Asked what she felt Maude might be doing nowadays, Miss Moore laughed contagiously.

“Maude Lebowski would be making art somewhere. She’d definitely have moved to Berlin by now,” she said, chuckling.

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