“If we sugarcoat, or worse yet, turn a blind eye to an issue like Alzheimer’s because it makes us uncomfortable, we will never understand its complexities.”
–Scott Kirschenbaum, Filmmaker, You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t
Spirited and social, Lee Gorewitz lived in a care facility in Danville, California, and was a lady who had something to say. Filmmaker Scott Kirschenbaum captured Lee’s life during this time, in his 2010 documentary, You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t. Throughout the film, Kirschenbaum focuses on Lee’s routine, her ruminations and her curiosity, as she lives with Alzheimer’s disease.
The first documentary filmed exclusively in an Alzheimer’s care unit, the film is also the first told from the perspective of a woman living with Alzheimer’s. Acclaimed by medical professionals and film critics alike, the groundbreaking documentary has been broadcast nationally on PBS’ Emmy Award-winning Independent Lens series.
A Story That Started as Fiction
Kirschenbaum had originally been working on a fictional Alzheimer’s narrative in the fall of 2008. Then, he met Lee Gorewitz and threw away his screenplay. Over the course of the next six months, he visited Lee at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living.
“I [hoped to make] 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,” he said.
An activist for the elderly, Kirschenbaum does not have any relatives who have been affected by Alzheimer’s, but he has taken on the subject matter to portray the reality of the disease.
“My time with Lee, and her struggle, left me utterly confounded,” he said. “Who’s to say Lee’s fragmented reality is any less valid than my own?”
What the Film Teaches Viewers
Many myths surround Alzheimer’s, so in documenting Lee’s odyssey, Kirschenbaum worked to lay the bare truths about the disease. Lee can be seen wandering around the care unit for instance, seeming to have a destination but then changing course or reversing.
When asked about life, love and family, she speaks in confused, yet somewhat philosophical, terms. “I’m trying to do the best I can to let you know what I’m thinking,” Lee says. This vitality shines through the film, where Lee stays on her feet, engaging fellow residents and staff. When she hears music, she often dances, showing off how well she remembers the steps.
Kirschenbaum emphasizes this, and the importance of family, music and language in the lives of people with Alzheimer’s and how our compassion should always lead our interactions.
“Though those with Alzheimer’s might forget us, we as a society must remember them,” Kirschenbaum says.
“We must learn to more willingly engage with mental illness in ways that recognize the vulnerability of the mind while simultaneously appreciating the resiliency of the spirit.”
Challenges in Filming
The film crew received strong support from the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, as well as encouragement from the residents’ children to show what life was like there.
But, making a film in an Alzheimer’s unit presented its own unique set of challenges. “It’s a world of uninhibited behavior, communication breakdown and social isolation,” Kirschenbaum says.
Unpredictable moments became routine, “due to that constant sense of disorientation.” Kirschenbaum says, “in the span of minutes Lee could morph from pensive thinker to gregarious helper, from bubbly mover-and-shaker to morose and sometimes cruel instigator.”
At one moment in the film, Lee approaches a fellow resident and says, “You’re going to die.” Then she walks away. Yet, many other times in the film, she greets people with her beaming smile, even making a point to thank the aide who helps her get ready in the morning by kissing her on the cheek.
Grounded in Truth and Empathy
What makes Kirschenbaum most proud of his film? Its nature and unique structure. He feels that many Alzheimer’s-related films feature the perspective of those without the disease, such as family members or doctors. Portraying the story from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient living in the care facility had not been done before.
“In ways that are often painful and intense to the rest of us, Lee and others with Alzheimer’s stumble along a road we’re all traveling, trying – often desperately – to communicate something, anything, grasping for unanswerable riddles.”
As Kirschenbaum puts it, our best way to counter Alzheimer’s, barring a cure, is empathy. “We all have empathy within our reach,” he says.
That empathy can help us shift our perspective. It can teach us to focus less on the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s and more on the beauty that remains within the person struggling through it.
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