In the fall of 2008, I wrote a screenplay I intended to film entirely in an Alzheimer’s unit.
After many weeks of rehearsals, I arrived at a troubling realization: I was not just making a challenging film, I was making the wrong film.
Writing a fictional Alzheimer’s narrative – creating a neat and orderly plot whose course I could control, from a disease by nature chaotic and nonlinear – was impossible. In the way that a son or daughter doesn’t know exactly what to expect during a visit with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, it’s inconceivable for a screenwriter to map out the trajectory of a scene in an Alzheimer’s unit, and expect it to play itself out in a manner remotely resembling what was written.
Other than the loose structure provided by a schedule of daily activities – a parachute toss, the hair salon, an oldies sing-a-long – life in an Alzheimer’s unit does not follow the logic of the real world.
It is founded upon the incidental and accidental; a string of interactions and experiences that digress unpredictably, omnidirectionally, and constantly turn back on themselves. The Alzheimer’s unit almost never adheres to the continuity of the linear narratives that we enjoy on a daily basis – or that screenplays require.
For Lee every day is an odyssey: wandering to and fro, on a quest for something that she can neither articulate nor comprehend.
The first time I visited the Traditions Alzheimer’s Unit in Danville, Calif., I was greeted at the door by Lee Gorewitz, a spry septuagenarian in a baby blue jogging suit.
With the exuberance of a cruise director, Lee presented herself as a staff member, took my hand and gave me a tour, during which she delivered a soliloquy unlike anything I had ever heard before: for well over a minute she prattled on about purses, windows and gardens, before she eventually locked eyes with me and said: “I hear the song in my ears, and I think they don’t love me anymore.”
From this spontaneous word-salad came two things that forever altered my film project: I realized Lee was not staff, but a resident. And, I decided, her presence in the unit was reason enough to throw away that screenplay I’d just written.
For the next six months I visited Lee with the hope of making a documentary that would capture her inner universe: the discord and frustration, the communication breakdown and uninhibited behavior everyone speaks of when they speak of Alzheimer’s, and the unusually poetic candor it can distill.
Reflecting on her birthplace, Lee would say, “Brooklyn, it’s right behind you.”
Considering love: “That’s a damn good thing to work with.”
Regarding her deceased husband: “How do I even say it? The air – was very good.”