Sandy Oltz may be the only Minnesotan who knows what Julianne Moore will be wearing to the Academy Awards on Sunday.
She promised Moore that she wouldn’t spill, and she laughs at the irony that anyone would worry.
“With my memory?” Oltz said. “I’m not telling anybody.”
Oltz, 50, probably will be wearing jammies when she watches the Oscars from her home in Sartell, Minn., outside St. Cloud.
She’s 100 percent certain that Moore, the star of “Still Alice,” will win best actress for her poignant, understated portrayal of Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor who learns that she has “younger-onset” Alzheimer’s disease.
“She nailed it,” Oltz said of Moore.
Moore has Oltz to thank for that. Oltz, whose Alzheimer’s was diagnosed four years ago, guided Moore by sharing her personal experiences of living with the devastating disease.
Now the two women communicate regularly via e-mail and Skype, their professional relationship blossoming into a friendship.
“The first time we talked, we were supposed to have 30 minutes, but we ended up talking [via Skype] for about an hour and a half,” said Oltz, her hair red and curly, her eyes ocean blue, which led Moore to exclaim, “We could be sisters!”
For back-to-back interviews at the Alzheimer’s Association offices in St. Cloud, Oltz wore stylish lambskin boots that Moore gave her for Christmas. “They feel just like butter,” Oltz said. “I’ll be wearing them in the middle of July.”
She turned to a staff person. “Have we met?” she asked. The woman confirmed that they had. “That’s Alzheimer’s,” Oltz said good-naturedly, sweeping her arm through the air. “You meet new friends every day.”
Diagnosis took years
About five years ago, Oltz, a married mother of two young sons, was counseled to take a leave of absence from her work as a hospital surgical nurse. She was relieved, she said.
The self-professed Type A “perfectionist” knew something was very wrong. She had forgotten to pick up the boys from school. She got lost on her way home. She was growing panicked that she would “do something catastrophic” to a patient.
For nearly a year after leaving the hospital, Oltz and her internist tried to figure out what was wrong. Was it menopause? Depression? Was she having mini-strokes?
Medications didn’t help, and the memory lapses continued. Oltz found herself pulling away from daily activities, such as cooking and cleaning, as those ordinary activities became harder to accomplish.
Alzheimer’s was not on the shortlist of possibilities. “Younger-onset” refers to anyone diagnosed at age 65 or younger. That’s about 200,000 people, compared with 5 million Americans over 65. Almost two-thirds of the latter are women.
“We are seeing more people diagnosed in their 40s and 50s, but it is unclear if this is an actual increase in numbers or better diagnosis,” said Debbie Richman, vice president of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter. “The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease remains age, and with baby boomers getting older, these numbers are set to skyrocket to an estimated 16 million by 2050.”
Finally, Oltz underwent neurological testing and was not surprised by the “plaques and tangles” revealed by her abnormal brain scan. “I was relieved,” she said. “I was sad, but, finally, we weren’t going to have to do more testing.” She went home and cocooned. “I just shut down for a while. It’s a form of self-preservation.”
Help from Alzheimer’s group
Her husband, meanwhile, went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting where the speaker was from the Alzheimer’s Association. A few months later, Oltz made her way to the nonprofit support and research organization in St. Cloud.
“It saved my life,” she said. The couple joined a Memory Club with eight other younger-onset couples. They remain close to those couples today.
Oltz served on the state board, then at the national level as an early-stage adviser.
She had read neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel “Still Alice” during her surgical nursing days. She enjoyed it and recommended it to patients.
After her diagnosis, she read it again. “It had a different feeling,” she said.
When the writers and director of the film “Still Alice” reached out to the national Alzheimer’s office to guide them, Oltz was partnered with Moore, who had many questions for Oltz.
“How do you get dressed?” (Painstakingly.) “How do you do your hair?” (Oltz no longer straightens it because it would take too long.) “Do you still run by yourself?” (Oltz now runs with a partner.)
What does it feel like to get lost? “I’ve never had one, but it must be like a panic attack,” Oltz answered. “The first time I was lost, I just stopped and closed my eyes. I don’t know if it was two hours or five minutes, but, when I opened them, I was fine.”
Oltz also pointed out errors in the movie script, which was evolving daily. In an early version, for example, Moore takes off her medical alert bracelet at night. “Once you put this sucker on, it doesn’t come off,” said Oltz, pulling up her sleeve to show hers.
‘You work so hard to fit in’
Oltz was on the set the day she turned 50. Moore arranged for a spectacular cake.
“It was surreal,” Oltz said. She cried through the premiere of “Still Alice” in Los Angeles, which she attended with the cast and executive producer Maria Shriver — also surreal.
But she admitted that the real world often catches up with her, typically at night, when she feels exhausted and, sometimes, deflated. She can no longer write checks or set her alarm clock. Some friends have backed away, unsure of how to be with her.
Oltz works 10 hours a week decorating mannequins at a department store, which she enjoys because “it’s creative and it’s not numbers. It’s not judged.
“Some days I wish I was bald or had a cast on my brain,” she said, frustrated by the frequent comment by well-meaning people that she “seems fine.”
“You work so hard to fit in,” she said.
Her boys are teenagers now. She wants them to be able to fit in, too, and to act like teenagers, prom, sports and all. “They’re very aware, but, at this time, I’m Mom,” Oltz said. “This will become awful for them soon enough. At this time, I don’t want them to worry about it.”
People with Alzheimer’s, Oltz likes to say, “are struggling. We’re not suffering. Anybody is susceptible to this disease.
“But we are still people. And we can still contribute.”