When filmmaker Scott Kirschenbaum visited the dementia care unit at Danville’s Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living to research a film on Alzheimer’s, he was greeted by a lively woman who offered to show him around.
“She presented herself as a staff member,” Kirschenbaum later said.
But as the tour progressed, he saw she was one of the residents.
“I realized she spoke in ‘word salad’ poetry” he said, describing the often incoherent language of individuals suffering various forms of brain disorder.
Yet her energy impressed him.
“There was warmth and connection,” he said in a phone interview. “After a few weeks I knew she was going to be the focus of the film.”
Her name is Lee Gorewitz, 81, the subject of Kirschenbaum’s 53-minute independent film, “You’re Looking at Me as If I Lived Here, But I Don’t,” to be shown nationally March 29 on PBS stations’ “Independent Lens.”
Throughout the film, Alzheimer’s isn’t mentioned. There is no voice-over or narration. Instead, the viewer is drawn immediately into Gorewitz’ world, accompanying her at the Traditions Alzheimer’s and Other Dementia Care Unit, as she struggles to make sense of her situation and interacts or chooses not to with other residents and caregivers.
“Most films I’ve seen on Alzheimer’s include an outside opinion, ” Kirschenbaum said. “I wanted to do something focusing on the person with the disease. The point is to have a total immersion into her world.”
Filming took place over six months at the Reutlinger facility.
From shots of still photographs of a young wife and mother, the viewer glimpses the previous life of Gorewitz, whom we meet walking alone around the unit, greeting others, and looking at first glance like a school principal checking out the school grounds. She appears independent, bossy and lively. She brightens at the sight of the caregivers.
As the film progresses, we observe her strong personality and sense of humor. She loves to dance. She likes to be in charge. But we also witness her increasingly fragmented sense of reality, and the gradual disintegration that is part of the disease.
There are glimpses of other residents in the 20-person unit as well. Two women chat on a couch. They may or may not have known each other before; their husbands may or may not have died. They can’t remember. They are simply present now.
The film’s title comes from a conversation Gorewitz has with stuffed animals in her comfortable room. “You’re looking at me as if I live here, ” she tells a little bear, “but I don’t.”
Viewers unfamiliar with Alzheimer’s would benefit from some homework before they view the film, said a representative from the Alzheimer’s Association, one of many groups which praises the project.
“The film is not about Alzheimer’s but about a woman who has Alzheimer’s,” said Karen Kelleher, director of the Traditions unit. “It is not meant as a tool to study the disease. It’s about this woman and her unique self-expression within the confines of a degenerative disease. Each person has a different reaction to the disease, and people change as the disease progresses.”
The film reveals the poignancy of the decline as Gorewitz, asked to identify people in a photograph of herself and her family becomes confused. “Where are you in that photo?” asks Kirschenbaum. “I’m not,” she replies.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s rises with advanced age. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years beyond age 65.
For information on the disease, see www.alz.org.
“Time Film provides insight into internal life of Danville Alzheimer’s patient” by Joan Aragone was originally published on MercuryNews.com for the Contra Costa Times.