It was John Illges' turn to pick the text the Spring Harbor book club would read and discuss in December. He selected "Still Alice," the bestselling novel by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist hailed for writing about Alzheimer's disease from the patient's perspective.
Illges' choice was fortuitous.
None of the club members knew that Genova would speak in Columbus the following month. So after reading the book, they are encouraging folks to attend the author's free lecture Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. in the Columbus Public Library auditorium.
"We have members of the club who have relatives or a husband with Alzheimer's," said Illges, the lone man in the book club, "so it was a hard book for some of those people to read, but I think we all found it stimulating and interesting."
Club member Shirley Groneman said the title, "Still Alice," sums up the novel's message.
"She's still a person," Groneman said. "She is still who she is, even though she isn't functioning normally. I think it's a very, very important message, so I'm real eager to meet this Lisa Genova."
Genova also has written bestselling novels "Left Neglected," about severe brain trauma, and "Love Anthony," about autism. But it's her debut work about Alzheimer's that hits home for these Spring Harbor residents. "Still Alice" tells the story of Alice Howland, who goes from being a successful 50-year-old Harvard University professor to having to give up her work and independence because of the disease.
"She must re-evaluate her relationship with her husband, her expectations of her children and her ideas about herself and her place in the world," Genova's website explains. "Losing her yesterdays, her short-term memory hanging on by a couple of frayed threads, she is living in the moment, living for each day. But she is still Alice."
That's a familiar scenario to club member Betty Sommers. As a self-employed land developer, her husband knew how to make decisions. So his apparently normal forgetfulness turned into an alarming sign of something more serious when he couldn't decide where to plant the annuals in his beloved garden.
Six years later, Sommers is grateful to live at the Spring Harbor continuing care retirement community in Columbus, where her 82-year-old husband gets the treatment he needs and she is only a walk away from her apartment to his bedside.
"You just need to have patience and love," said Sommers, who declined to give her husband's name. "I think there are lots of ways we can treat these people so their living accommodations would be much better. I think so often of the people that don't have the wherewithal to live at a Spring Harbor and are still out there."
Indeed, the book's portrayal of the family fallout from Alzheimer's sparked talk in the book club, Fran Watt said.
"We recognize a lot of the symptoms that Alice displayed," she said, "and seeing how the family members dealt with the situation is interesting because we know that every family deals with these circumstances differently."
Club member Evelyn Crowley noted, "As the years go by, more and more of us will have experience with this kind of thing. People are living longer, so there's so much more of it."
An estimated 5.2 million Americans had the disease in 2013, according to the Alzheimer's Association. By 2025, with life spans and diagnoses increasing, the number of cases is expected to reach 7.1 million, the association says.
So society must increase its understanding as well, club members said. In the book, even Alice's loved ones sometimes treat her as if she were absent physically as well as mentally, said club member Jeanne Robinson.
"Her children and her husband would be talking about 'Alice this' and 'Alice that,' and Alice would be sitting there," she said.
All of which makes Rosanna Borders, the healthcare recreation therapist at Spring Harbor, grateful that Illges picked "Still Alice" for the book club. She said the novel "gives readers a good perception of what this disease feels like to the person who has it and therefore increases our empathy, patience and compassion toward those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's."MEET THE AUTHOR AT FREE LECTURE
Local residents can meet and hear "Still Alice" author Lisa Genova at a free lecture Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. in the Columbus Public Library auditorium, 3000 Macon Road. The Muscogee County Library Foundation is presenting the lecture. Spring Harbor and St. Francis Hospital also are sponsoring Genova's visit. For more information, see the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries website, www.cvlga.org, or call 706-243-2669.
Genova also will speak at the foundation's annual gala, Jan. 25. The event is for major donors. For reservations or more information, call 706-660-9702.
WARNING SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
According to the Alzheimer's Association, memory loss that disrupts daily life may be a symptom of Alzheimer's or another dementia. Alzheimer's is a brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. There are 10 warning signs and symptoms. Every individual may experience one or more of these signs in different degrees. If you notice any of them, the association suggests that you see a doctor.
For a link to the 10 warning signs and symptoms, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com.