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True Love and Dementia: Revisiting ‘The Notebook’

If you’ve sobbed through The Notebook, we’d probably be friends.

It’s true. A quick Facebook search reveals that dozens of my friends — of different ages, genders, hometowns, etc. — have liked the page for the movie, now a good 10 years since its premiere.

Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in 'The Notebook'

Although I haven’t clicked like on the fan page, I do like The Notebook. It’s hard to resist the love story of Noah and Allie (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams), as told by an older man (the late James Garner) to a woman who has dementia (Gena Rowlands). Even if you’re not a Nicholas Sparks fan, just try to deny the chemistry in this clip.

But lately, as I learn more about dementia, I’ve been reconsidering the storyline. In the end, it’s revealed that the twists and turns of Noah and Allie’s courtship belong to the older couple. They are Noah and Allie, years later. Reading the story over and over is Noah’s attempt to bring back Allie.

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There certainly are no universal guidelines for expressing love and commitment, but many of today’s leaders in dementia care stress the importance of seeing people in the present tense. Rather than focusing on the past, waiting for glimmers of the mothers or wives or friends we once knew, our goal should be helping loved ones engage in the moment, in whatever way seems to bring them joy or peace.

One way that’s gaining momentum: participatory arts programs, like the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, KAIROS ALIVE! dance company and Songwriting Works. The programs — which involve making art, as opposed to observing art — help people with dementia participate in the present. They also may offer a model for loved ones like Noah, doing all they can to connect.

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The Alzheimer's Poetry Project

Here’s how they work:

Everyone is invited to contribute. People of all cognitive abilities collaborate on poems, dances and songs. Leaders often position participants — called ‘co-creators’ — in a circle, so they can feed off one another’s energy.

Each session is its own entity. Rather than build on sequences from previous classes, these programs center on creation within the time frame of that day. This allows participants to pull ideas from the moment, instead of having to recall particulars from the past.

Every voice is heard. Even whispers, pauses and silences are acknowledged as part of the creation. Alzheimer’s Poetry Project leaders, for example, crouch to eye level and initiate conversations that later become lines of group poems. Every response is a right one.

Noah’s afternoons reading to Allie make for heartwarming Hollywood scenes, but I wonder how they shape our perception of what it means to interact with loved ones living with dementia. I also wonder how Allie would respond to the challenge of creating her own story from scratch, rather than listening to one that comes with an expectation of remembering.

One question Alzheimer’s Poetry Project leaders use to spark ideas is, “If you were a bird, where would you fly?” For fans of The Notebook, it’s quite fitting. (Watch: If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.) I think Allie would be on board.

Credits: New Line Cinema/Everett Collection (top); Laura Hahn (bottom)

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