On her 50th birthday, Sandy Oltz sat on the film set of “Still Alice” and listened to actress Julianne Moore speak a line that Oltz, an early onset Alzheimer’s patient, had struggled to write.
“Please do not think I am suffering. I am not suffering,” Moore said as the character of Alice Howland. “I am struggling, struggling to be a part of things, to stay connected to who I once was.”
Playing a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease, Moore was giving a speech to a fake meeting of the Alzheimer's Association. It's a position that Oltz has been in many times before.
Oltz, a self-described “type-A” person and former nurse, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 47, when she was raising two teenage sons and juggling a high-pressure job.
“There is some family history, but I never really thought that it would be me,” said Oltz of her early diagnosis. "We tried menopause, we tried brain tumor, we thought stroke, seizure. It took about a year to come to Alzheimer’s.”
Months before the “Still Alice” film shoot in New York, Oltz partnered with the cast and crew of the film through the Alzheimer’s Association. She gave tips from her own life about how to cope with Alzheimer's, such as using a highlight to mark text she's reading. The work seems to have paid off with Moore winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her role.
"[Moore] would just ask questions like, ‘What does it feel like to have Alzheimer's,'" said Oltz. "I would say, 'Well, it’s like all these words [are here] and you can’t find the right one.'"
After living with the disease for three years, Oltz said she's mostly learned to accept her limitations, but she still worries that her disease will have an impact on how her sons view her.
"I worry ... they’re never going to know how smart I really was," she said. "They see their mom as kind of funny because I have to be."
Oltz said the film was important so that people can understand that it does not just affect the elderly.
“There’s a stigma that they’re grandmas and grandpas, and their life has been lived and they’re done,” she said of stereotypes about Alzheimer patients. “I pray [the film] breaks the stigma.”
Early onset Alzheimer’s disease affects 200,000 people in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer Association. The film “Still Alice” will be released in limited locations this Friday.