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The Long Goodbye

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 13, 2009 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 13, 2009 |

Jesus Christ. HBO’s four-part, five-hour documentary special on Alzheimer’s killed me. It fucking destroyed me, man. As I write this and think back to the five hours I watched over the past few days, I’m doing my best not to weep like a little girl, because I’ve just never had a documentary hit home the way this series does.

My body has never been a physical specimen of, uhm, excellence. I’ve always had full-fledged Jew-boy Syndrome, lacking all but the most basic of coordination. (But at least I’m also horribly unathletic!) And as I’ve gotten older, complete with two back surgeries under my belt, I’ve started to accept the physical failings of entropic life. If my body breaks down as I get older, I know that I can accept it and will, hopefully, be able to deal with it. However, I like to think I’m a pretty smart dude, and even though I already have an embarrassingly terrible memory, I remain absolutely terrified of the prospect of my mental facilities fading.

As a young lad, I saw glimpses of mid-stage Alzheimer’s through a few family dinners with a distant uncle. Later in life, I became much more familiar with it analogously — my grandfather had a devastating stroke which left his mind in a state of dementia pretty much identical to late-stage Alzheimers. He generally did not know who I was, where he was, or what was going on. For a while, there were still tiny windows when the Grandpa Danny I knew was there, although he was usually living in an amalgamated memory from years gone by. But by and large, the awesome man I knew growing up was gone. It was brutal. And presently, I’m watching a very good friend be continually crushed by the enormous undertaking of caring for his mother, whose Alzheimer’s has progressively gotten worse over the last few years.

Point being, Alzheimer’s is a devastatingly frightening disease, and it scares the living fuck out of me. One of the films in “The Alzheimer’s Project” states that Alzheimer’s is the second most feared disease in America, behind only cancer. Well, having seen first-hand the worst that cancer can throw at someone, and having also seen the singular vacuousness that comes with dementia, I’m infinitely more afraid of Alzheimer’s.

So the last thing I really wanted to do was watch HBO’s four-part documentary series, “The Alzheimer’s Project.” But I watched it anyway. And I’m glad I did. Because yes, it was sad, painful, depressing and frightening. But it was also touching and fascinating, wildly informative and, at times, hopeful and spirit-lifting.

The first part of the series is the hour-and-a-half “The Memory Loss Tapes,” which follows several patients afflicted with the disease, along with their family and loved ones. This documentary is astounding. The filmmakers manage to successfully dig deep into who these people were before the Alzheimer’s set in. Getting this real sense of understanding as to who they were, the tragedy of seeing where the disease is or has taken them just kicks you right in the balls. Through the film, we see folks in various stages of the disease including a moment that is so not for the faint of heart….

(*I’m loathe to mention the next two scenes I’m going to talk about, because they carry such an emotional punch that I hate to take away from that viewing experience. But if I’m going to recommend watching this, which I do, I feel like I have to warn you about the first scene. And in light of that, I think the second scene warrants mentioning for its counterpoint. If you want to go into watching this blind, skip the next three paragraphs.*)

Late in the film, we wind up literally watching a man die on film, hearing his last breath and seeing his awesome and doting wife break at his bedside. This scene is one of the saddest moments I have ever seen put to film, especially because in clips just minutes before, taken only a month prior, you see how amazingly bright, sweet and wonderful this man was, even though he was already in the fierce late-stages of the disease. Now your general inclination might be, as mine would be if I were reading this review without having seen the film, to just attribute the strength of this moment to emotional manipulation. Of course filming a death is going to be sad and depressing. But it’s very clear that emotional manipulation isn’t the intent here at all. The intent is simply to be open and honest (and the folks who allowed these filmmakers so intimately into their lives are so incredibly strong and courageous for doing so) and, unfortunately, the fact is that Alzheimer’s has no cure, and death is the inevitable outcome.

That being said, “The Memory Loss Tapes” also has one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen put to film. One of the patients, before coming down with Alzheimer’s, used to sing with a group. He did so for years, well into his later life. Now, his mind is so ravaged by Alzheimer’s that when his wife and daughter are driving him to watch his old group perform, he repeatedly asks them where they’re going. Each time they tell him, and he says something along the lines of “oh, that’ll be so nice to see them” or “they’re such nice people.” And then moments later, he’s again asking why he’s in the car and where they’re going.

And yet, when the group invites him up on stage during their performance, this man, this man who doesn’t even remember his wife to the point that he essentially has another girlfriend at the nursing home, gets up on stage and sings one of his old songs with them. As the lead vocal. From memory. And for those few minutes, he’s living both in his memory and in the moment. And it’s astounding. But Alzheimer’s shows no mercy, and on the drive back to the home, he’s forgotten the performance entirely, again asking why he’s in the car.

HBO smartly aired this film on a night by itself, because you can’t watch another documentary after it. Especially part two, “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?” Jesus Christ. I literally watched about two-thirds of this through perpetually glassy-eyes. This half-hour film focuses on children coping with grandparents afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and I’m simply at a loss for words to describe it. Most of the kids are amazing, in how they can deal with the situation and accept it so head-on and matter-of-factly. They get what’s going on, they get what’s going to inevitably happen as things get worse, and most of them just take it all in stride. One boy talks about how he knows that it will be sad when his grandfather no longer remembers him. But he’s just not going to be sad now. Another boy notes, “I have to help because I’m the biggest one and I can’t just go to mom for everything.” This kid is only seven-years-old for Christ’s sake.

And then there was this 15-year-old girl, who goes to the home with her mother and sister to see her late-stage grandmother: “I don’t like seeing grandma anymore. I used to enjoy it a lot when we were really young and before it all. But I don’t enjoy it much now because everytime I see her, it’s one more time I see her like this and one last time that I see her the way it was. And it’s more just replacing the memory of how she was.” These are pretty much the exact thoughts and feelings I had as time went on with my Grandpa Danny, and the empathy I have for this girl and her family knows no bounds.

The only problem with this short film was that the pieces were cut-up with narrative bits from Maria Shriver, who is a producer of the entire film series. I understand why, because this particularly film is based on a book she wrote about dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s, and how her kids have dealt with it and how she’s learned from them. But the cuts were more jarring than anything else, and I found that her bits didn’t really add much substance to the film. That being said, they did at least offer moments of respite in what’s simply a brutal half-hour of television. This time, HBO did air another part of the series right after, but there was just no way I could delve into it. I was spent, I had no idea what the next film was going to do to me, and I just couldn’t take anymore.

When I did get around to part three, I realized that HBO was very wise, as this hour was the first part of “Momentum in Science,” an in-depth look at the science behind the disease. It’s generally a much colder and “just the facts” presentation, although it does have some personal stories threaded throughout. And it’s really a fascinating film, particularly as you see how much doctors and scientists have managed to learn about this disease in a relatively short amount of time. I imagine many folks have the general understanding that I once did of this disease, that it’s really just about the brain failing. Of course, it’s infinitely more complicated than that and, as the film points out, Alzheimer’s is really a disease of the whole body, not just the mind. The mental breakdown is just the ultimate symptom. In any event, it was really cool to see folks talk through what they’ve learned, and how they research the disease in the hopes of putting pieces together in a way to eventually deal with the currently incurable disease.

Part four of the series, “Caregivers,” was the weakest film of the bunch. This hour-long film focuses on the loved ones helping to take care of several patients in various stages of early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sad, but it just didn’t carry the same punch as the first two films. I think this is, in part, because each of the caregivers are so strong and, by and large, have managed to come to grips with the stark reality of living with this disease. And, because of the spin the film takes, particularly with the last story, the ultimate feeling of the film as a whole is a bit more hopeful. But the real difference here is that, because the film focuses less on the patients and doesn’t delve into their lives and histories as much as “The Memory Tapes” did, there’s more emotional separation from what you’re watching. Which isn’t to say that “Caregivers” is bad, mind you. It just lacks the emotional punch of the first two films, and the intellectual punch of the third, and so it winds up coming off a bit thinner by comparison.

Finally, HBO wound the project down with the second part of “Momentum in Science.” While it’s just a continuation of the first-half, and continues to be an in-depth look at the past and ongoing scientific efforts to fight the disease, this one also packs a bit more punch. That’s in large part because it focuses more on patients and their ability to help scientists conduct the research necessary to hopefully tackle the disease. Most touching of these is an early segment that looks at a family who’s been pivotal in one arm of Alzheimer’s research, due to the tragic fact that five-of-six siblings inherited the dominant gene responsible for early-onset familial Alzheimer’s. (And that sixth sibling is yet another inspiring figure in these films, as she shows remarkable strength in talking about doing everything she can to care for her brothers and sisters as they inevitably are taken down by the disease.) The second part of “Momentum in Science” is also rather hopeful, as scientists appear to be getting ever closer to being able to detect the disease at earlier stages, perhaps even before the symptoms strike and, hopefully, are on the path to developing successful treatments, if not a full-blown cure.

While I think everyone should see the whole series, it’s a decision you have to make for yourself, particularly as to the first two films, because they’re hard, man. “Momentum in Science” is a bit easier to recommend to the masses, because it’s a more straightforward scientific documentary about a tragic disease. If you have HBO, you can set your DVR to record any of these films at various times throughout the month. But even if you don’t have HBO, you can still watch one or all of the documentaries, as HBO is streaming all of them on its website. One piece of advice though — don’t watch “The Memory Tapes” or “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?” in the office. Because your office-mates will want to know why you’re getting misty-eyed over some bullshit TPS Report you’re supposed to be preparing.

Here’s HBO’s trailer, which is a little deceptive of the Project as a whole, as it primarily focuses on “Momentum in Science.”

Seth Freilich just made a contribution to The Alzheimer’s Association and plans to add the group to his list of yearly donations.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.