Still Alice and Beyond
In the film, Still Alice, the gift of Alzheimer’s comes at the very end, when Alice’s daughter asks her mum, ‘What was it about?’ and Alice replies, ‘Love’. For me this is the most beautiful moment in the film and tears streamed down my face as I watched it. But although this was the end of the film, it was not the end of Alice’s Alzheimer’s journey – far from it. T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets said, ‘The end is where we start from,’ and the insights I’ve gained about Alzheimer’s over the years have shown me that the film’s ending is actually the beginning of a new stage – the end-stage. It might surprise you to learn that there is unexpected potential to be found in this final phase and truly wonderful and mysterious things can happen.
Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice deserves all the accolades it has received. She portrays with great empathy and accuracy the slow, painful process of disintegration from Alice’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s through to when Alice seems to be out of this world and can barely speak. But where is Alice towards the end? And what does she want to convey? It is not surprising to me that her last word is, ‘Love’.
Researchers in the field of neuroscience have found that people with Alzheimer’s have a propensity to be loving, especially when they are in the presence of others who are feeling love towards them. Although this is not always the case in the early stages when people are still trying desperately to exercise control, it happens later when they have lost much of their cognitive function and have no choice but to surrender to their condition. Around this time they start to lose their sense of self and their ego diminishes. They also lose their sense of linear time – past and future move into the present. This all sounds horrendous to us but according to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, being without an ego and totally present in the ‘now’ is a transcendental state. So viewed from this perspective the process of Alzheimer’s is not only one of dissolution, but also, more importantly, one of transcendence.
But, you might ask, transcendence to where? Spiritual and religious teachings say that love is the gateway between this world and the Other World. Still Alice ends at this gateway between these two worlds. So what is beyond? When people move into the late-stage of the disease they experience intermittent altered states of consciousness in which they perceive a world beyond our physical realm. They can surprise us with moments of great clarity despite having few functioning brain cells. And at times they can demonstrate extra-sensory-perception (ESP), such as clairvoyance and clairaudience. When they are in the Other World they feel deep love, are free from pain and have no fear of death.
So what do we need to know in order for us to help our loved ones with Alzheimer’s make the transition from our physical world, with all its trials and tribulations, to the Other World where they can enjoy freedom and ultimate bliss? It goes without saying that providing wellbeing is a core condition, but that is not all. We need to be curious and listen for the wisdom buried in seeming incoherence. We need to seek meaning in their communications. We need to validate their experiences even if they don’t match our own – they are real for them. In other words, we need to be flexible and move onto their map and explore it with them. And above all we need to do this with a loving presence. When we do these things we can help our loved ones make a peaceful transition that will prepare them for a good ending – and a wonderful beginning.
I would like to see a sequel to the film, Still Alice, which focuses on the Other World. ‘It’s difficult working between two worlds,’ my mother said when she had late-stage Alzheimer’s. Following this interesting statement I proceeded to record our conversations for the next three and a half years and this chronicle forms the heart of my book, The Gift of Alzheimer’s. Through the lens of these conversations and my insights as a psychotherapist and energy therapist, the mysteries and extraordinary gifts of the final stage of the disease could be told to the world.
Looking forward to you joining me again on the next stage of our journey.
Maggie La Tourelle