On Jan. 11, Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal of Alice Howland in the box office hit, “Still Alice.”
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name, “Still Alice” chronicles the life of Howland, a linguistics professor who learns she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. On Sunday, Feb. 22, Moore could win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
Though the story is fictional, Moore’s portrayal represents the reality of more than 5 million Americans and their families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
For one south Charlotte family, “Still Alice” hits close to home.
Steve Brady and his wife, Kathryn, have been married for 33 years. Kathryn pursued a detail-oriented career at Bank of America, where she worked as a computer programmer and then in human resources for 20 years before becoming a consultant at Piedmont Natural Gas.
But in July 2011, Steve started noticing changes in his wife’s behavior that were uncharacteristic.
“She would ask me something and I would answer her, and then 20 minutes later she would ask me again,” Steve said. “It started becoming more and more prevalent. I would mention something, and she wouldn’t remember it at all. I started noticing signs, but I didn’t think much about it.
“But she started fretting about her work and wondering if she couldn’t do her job, which was totally out of character.”
Kathryn was working on developing a new benefits system at Piedmont Natural Gas when one of her coworkers called Steve to ask if he noticed any changes in his wife. Kathryn was attending a seminar with her coworkers and, after a lunch break, couldn’t remember her password to log back onto the computer.
“Her coworkers, they relied on her to help them understand the new systems,” Steve said. “After getting that call and hearing what was going on, we talked and decided we needed to see a doctor.”
Steve and Kathryn went to a neurologist who ran tests for tumors, stroke and chemical imbalances, all of which came back negative.
Finally, the neurologist conducted a test for early onset Alzheimer’s and it came back positive. Kathryn was just 55 years old.
“I don’t think either of us were expecting that diagnosis,” Steve said. “We were in shock.”
After the news settled in, Kathryn determined not to dwell on the prognosis but instead use her story for the betterment of others. She began volunteering with The Ivey, Charlotte’s only Memory Wellness Day Center. The nonprofit seeks to preserve memories, improve quality of life and promote independence for individuals battling Alzheimer’s and their families.
Steve said he was apprehensive about Kathryn’s involvement with The Ivey at first, fearing that being around patients more advanced in their diagnosis would upset her. But her involvement had the opposite affect.
“She realized she was changing,” he said. “She doesn’t sit around and feel sorry for herself. She’s dealt with it really well. It wasn’t this big catastrophic thing.”
Eventually, Kathryn became a member of The Ivey. She now goes to The Ivey on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays, she attends a support group at the Alzheimer’s Association and then goes to lunch with former coworkers from Piedmont Natural Gas. Steve said keeping Kathryn in a routine helps enhance her quality of life.
“Kathryn is absolutely lovely,” said Janet LeClair, chief operating officer of The Ivey. “She’s delightful. She’s loves competitions and loves playing corn hole when she’s here. She’s right there playing competitively with the guys. She loves music and dancing, and it’s been a really great experience for her I think.”
LeClair said about nine to 10 percent of The Ivey’s 69 members are individuals with early onset Alzheimer’s.
“It’s challenge because you have a situation where the individual is taken out of the workforce, sometimes the spouse is too, and often their entire social network can disappear,” she said. “It creates challenges for so many families. We try to be here to help them navigate through and care for them. Support is so important.”
The Ivey hosts support groups for early onset Alzheimer’s caregivers on the second Monday and fourth Friday of the month, from noon to 1:15 p.m. The group discusses how to provide emotional support and make new friendships while addressing questions and concerns of family members.
For the Brady family, Steve said he would continue to support Kathryn, encourage her, be patient and enjoy the moment.
“Acceptance is key, and Steve has done that so effortlessly,” LeClair said. “If there is a silver lining to Alzheimer’s, it forces you to grasp and appreciate the moment.
“So often we look forward to good times in the future or good times in the past. With Alzheimer’s, you appreciate the simple things in life and those defining moments that are small miracles.”
The Ivey is located at 6030 Park South Drive in south Charlotte. Visit www.theivey.com or call 704-909-2070 for more information. The Ivey is offering free tickets to “Still Alice” while supplies last. Tickets must be picked up in person from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.