1000 Great Films
(c) 2009, William L. Sinclair

The Memory Loss Tapes

Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, 2009, HBO (10*)

The Memory Loss Tapes
is the first part of four films in the HBO series The Alzheimer’s Project, and it’s an extremely powerful documentary that touches on the most basic human emotions, those that flow naturally from love, caring, and mortality. The film was brilliantly constructed by producer-directors Shari Cookson and Nick Doob to slowly reveal the progressive stages of Alzheimer’s in seven different patients, and just as importantly, to show the families of each having to cope with different aspects of the disease.

The first patient, Bessie, has only mild symptoms, so we get to see her as a lively, outgoing, and funny person. She knows what’s coming eventually but is still enjoying every day to its fullest. Another patient, Fannie, is losing her ability to drive her car, and with it her independence. Joe keeps a blog of his decline and can feel his mind slipping away. Yolanda thinks her reflection is a new best friend. Woody can’t remember his wife but can still remember song lyrics and sing with his old group.
Josephine’s daughter has had to fence in her property to keep her mom from wandering away. The patients shown exemplify the progression of the disease by revealing their everyday reality.

The most gripping part of this film deals with someone in the final stages of life, and the devastating effect it has on his family. In a heart wrenching revelation, the man’s wife admits feeling selfish for wanting to keep her husband with her as long as she can, despite the fact that he has "no life."

I don’t think I’ve ever seen mortality treated so realistically or with as much impact in any film. For parents, I would warn you to either pre-screen this for your children, especially those under ten, or counsel them before viewing. It’s something we’ll all face, but it may be distressing for young viewers to actually see in reality.

The saddest part of this illness to me is that it robs its victims of their memories at a stage in life when these are likely their most cherished possession. As a child, we would visit my great-grandmother in her nursing home, but she never remembered who we were, and she lived to be ninety-nine. I would have loved to have heard her stories that began around 1870, and just imagine the century she was able to witness.

Hopefully this film will instill a desire in many to become healers or medical researchers, and bring an understanding of the heavy cost of all terminal illnesses on the families and friends of the patients. We should all be aware now that new biotech research is necessary to cure this and similarly debilitating illnesses, and that money wasted on destructive goals is being diverted from these more humane purposes.

Many elderly patients don’t have any remaining family, as I found out when my mom was in a nursing home with Parkinson’s. Many eat alone and never have visitors, something we should never allow to happen. Visit as many of these people as you can, their smiles will be the best reward you’ll ever receive.

The Memory Loss Tapes should receive a handful of well-deserved Emmy nominations, and some awards. It's technically superb, emotionally powerful, and for me is one of the best TV documentaries ever made.

Producer-director Shari Cookson at IMDB
Producer-director Nick Doob at IMDB

[Though not yet on DVD, I'm reviewing this here in the hope that people will watch it on HBO or from their website: Click here for the HBO Link, and all episodes can be streamed from here as well.]

The Alzheimer's Organization is at http://www.alz.org/

Patients and families affected by Alzheimer’s can visit Icara Study to see if they might be eligible to enroll. [Thanks to Tracy for this]

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