A tale of Alzheimer’s told in 21 voices

A tale of Alzheimer’s told in 21 voices

Director Tom Kurlander and Producer Linda Massaro 

Photo courtesy of Tom Kurlander
Director Tom Kurlander and Producer Linda Massaro Photo courtesy of Tom Kurlander

When asked how he came up with the title “21Voices,” documentary film director Tom Kurlander hearkens back about two years, to the day he received the type of phone call that anyone with an aging parent dreads.

“I received a phone call from a doctor in Palm Beach, where my mother was living,” Kurlander recalled. “He told me that my mother was not safe.”

Kurlander got off the phone and onto a plane headed to Florida. When he arrived at his mother’s condo, he immediately knew that her life — and, consequently, his — had changed dramatically.

Kurlander’s mother was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, unable to properly care for herself, yet defiantly resisting the help that she needed. Kurlander found himself wholly unprepared for what would turn out to be a 38-day “odyssey” in Palm Beach, which included several emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

“When I arrived at her condo, I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s,” said Kurlander, a Pittsburgh-based composer, director and performer. “I didn’t know what ‘assisted living’ meant. I was given a crash course in dementia, aging and Alzheimer’s. What I learned was that are so many moving parts.”

In an effort to help other families, as well as patients, navigate the waters of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Kurlander, who spent his early years at Shady Side Academy and attending services at Rodef Shalom Congregation, has set out to create a documentary titled “21Voices: Touched by Alzheimer’s,” a comprehensive look at the effects of the disease. Kurlander intends to focus his lens on 21 different individuals touched by Alzheimer’s — including family members, caretakers, scientists and medical researchers — to provide audiences with a broad perspective on the different facets of the disease.

During Kurlander’s own initiation by fire to Alzheimer’s, he learned there were a myriad of issues that had to be dealt with at once.

“There was the financial component — my mother wouldn’t sign the power of attorney,” Kurlander recounted. “There was the loss of short-term memory. There was the loss of personal hygiene. She was in denial, and she just wouldn’t acquiesce. It’s very frightening for people. And it’s a rough ride financially.”

Kurlander is working alongside Pittsburgher Linda Massaro, whose father, construction company founder Joe Massaro, succumbed to Alzheimer’s last December after battling the disease for eight years. In 2011, Linda’s mother, Carolyn Massaro, established the Joseph A. Massaro Alzheimer’s Research Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation, which has raised $500,000 to help find a cure or preventative measures for the disease.

“We owe it to future generations to make this film,” Linda Massaro said. “It is a one-of-a-kind documentary. Alzheimer’s deteriorates your mind and your body. And it takes a long time to run its course. The questions you don’t know you’ll be faced with — there are so many of them.”

Massaro is busy raising funds for the film, she said, which she hopes will provide a roadmap for families navigating Alzheimer’s disease. She is working with the Pittsburgh Foundation, writing proposals for grants, and promoting an upcoming concert, co-written and composed by Kurlander and local musician Kyle Simpson.  

The concert, “21Voices: A Rock Symphony,” combines classical music with classic rock “to take the audience on a journey down musical memory lane,” according to Kurlander.

“We will be playing everything from ‘American Pie’ to ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’” Kurlander said. “I’m a big believer in the power of art. The evening will involve some new compositions, and some will be on the score for the new documentary. Many of the songs pertain to my experiences with my mom.”

The concert will be performed Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. at The Oaks Theater in Oakmont, and again on Nov. 12 at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry Township. Tickets are available at 21Voices.org. The lead sponsor of the concert is Presbyterian SeniorCare. 21Voices has also had support from the Jewish Association on Aging, as well as other organizations.

Kurlander’s mother is now living in a facility in Cleveland, he said. He visits her frequently, and plays music for her when he does.

“It turns out that often, the last things to go with Alzheimer’s is the memory of music,” he said. “If you can figure out what songs they knew in the past, it can be a very healing thing.”

Kurlander, who had an active film career performing in movies such as “Kindergarten Cop” and “Young Guns II,” and who has toured extensively with his band, has also produced several documentaries. He intuitively feels that his story of Alzheimer’s disease will best be told through 21 different voices. While he has some of those voices already in mind, he is still in the process of finalizing those who will be featured in his film, which he hopes to enter into the Sundance Film Festival when it is completed.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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