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Minnesota woman with Alzheimer’s helped guide Oscar-winning actress in ‘Still Alice’

SARTELL, Minn. — Last Sunday night in Hollywood, Julianne Moore sparkled in Chanel at the Oscars as she accepted the Best Actress award for her performance of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”

“I’m so happy — I’m thrilled, actually — that we were able to hopefully shine a light on Alzheimer’s disease,” said Moore in a speech that millions watched. “So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized. And one of the wonderful things about movies is it makes us feel seen and not alone. And people with Alzheimer’s deserve to be seen so that we can find a cure.”

Two thousand miles away in Sartell, Minn., Sandy Oltz, a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s, sparkled in pajamas as she cheered Moore on from her couch.

“I screamed so loud that I woke up the dog, who had lost interest in the show quite awhile before that,” Oltz said.

The two redheads — one in couture, the other in pajamas — have forged a unique bond through Alzheimer’s.

“Later that evening, Julianne texted me,” Oltz says. “She said, ‘Thank you; thank you for everything.”

STILL ALICE, STILL SANDY

In 2006, “Still Alice” was a best-selling novel by neuroscientist and author Lisa Genova. More recently, when the novel was adapted into a screenplay, experts and volunteers with the Alzheimer’s Association consulted on script and character development.

Moore, 54, wanted to speak to people living with the disease to help her prepare for her role as Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who is bewildered when, at age 50, she starts getting lost on her daily jogs; Oltz, 50, is one of the early-stage advisers for the Alzheimer’s Association.

“It started when I was 46,” says Oltz of her own symptoms. “I started forgetting to pick up my boys from school or their after-school activities. I began putting things away in the wrong places — dishes, laundry, groceries. It was not just misplacing my keys — I’d put ice cream in the cupboard, really odd stuff.

“I messed up at work, too,” Oltz says. “I was working as a nurse, doing wrong things there. We were learning a new computer program and I just couldn’t learn it. I couldn’t remember my password. At that point, the hospital and I agreed that I would take some time off; that it was probably due to stress.

“But even though I took time off, it didn’t seem to get any better. I was still putting things away wrong, I was still forgetting to pick up my kids. I went to see my family doctor and she thought it was probably early menopause. She drew blood; it wasn’t menopause. They thought I was depressed, I was prescribed an antidepressant. It wasn’t that. They tested my blood for any medical issue; they scanned my brain for a brain tumor. I had no physical signs of anything. It took nine months to a year to go through all these tests.

“Finally, I underwent neuropsychological testing to see if I had memory issues deeper than what I was showing. I didn’t do well; I showed some major deficiencies. They sent me to the Mayo Clinic for more testing, including a spinal tap and a brain PET scan. They could see the plaque and tangles; I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.”

LIFE GOES ON

“At first, I was relieved. It had been a year of ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and they had finally found something. But then I just went numb. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d lose my license as a nurse, I wouldn’t have a job.

I stayed at home, it became a kind of cocoon as I went through the stages of grief.

“Lucky for us, my husband belonged to the St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce. One Friday morning, not long after my diagnosis, he learned about the Alzheimer’s Association from a speaker at one of their meetings. He got in touch with them and dragged me there. They helped bring me back to reality: ‘It’s just a diagnosis,’ they said. ‘You can still contribute to society.’ They gave me purpose again.”

Part of that purpose included helping Moore.

“They lined up a few of us to meet with her via Skype,” Oltz says. “She said that when she suddenly saw my face appear on Skype, her first thought as, ‘She looks like me!’ We’re both redheads. It was supposed to be a short talk, but we ended up Skyping for a long time. We had so much in common — besides the red hair — we became friends, talking not just about Alzheimer’s but about normal, everyday things, like our kids or the weather.”

Oltz became a close adviser; the women still talk and text.

“She would come daily to me with questions, like ‘What does it feel like to get lost?’ ” Oltz says.

“I told her, ‘For me when I get lost, I close my eyes. It feels kind of like a panic attack — you’re breathing fast, you don’t know where you are, you don’t recognize things. When you open your eyes, you don’t know if it’s been five minutes or five hours, but when you open your eyes you kind of start to recognize things again.’ ”

Oltz went to New York to be an extra in the last scene of the movie, a scene in which Moore is speaking to a group about living with this progressive disease.

“The Alzheimer’s Association had sent her a speech I had given and they used part of it,” Oltz says. “One of the specific lines she used was about how we are not suffering with this disease, we are struggling to live with it.’ ”

There’s still joy, though.

“They shot that speech on my 50th birthday,” Oltz says. “They stopped taping to present me with a birthday cake; everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

It’s a memory she’ll hang onto — as long as she can.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.