Alzheimer's: A Baby Boomer Epidemic
I am a child of Alzheimer's. For many years, my father, Sargent Shriver, would testify before Congress for increased funding for his beloved Peace Corps -- and for all the War On Poverty programs he started. My father was an idealistic, intelligent, optimistic public servant, sharp and witty, his mind a beautifully-tuned instrument that left people in awe and inspired. That was then...today he doesn't know my name or who I am. When my Dad was diagnosed in 2003, I felt confused, powerless and alone. There was little information -- and even less hope. My mother, my four brothers and I felt we were entering a world that was terrifying and incomprehensible. Like cancer, people didn't talk about Alzheimer's back then -- they whispered about it. It was a diagnosis shrouded in shame.
We struggled with learning about medication and care-giving -- with issues of our father's diminishing independence. We tried to explain to him why he could no longer drive or do many of the things he loved most in this world, like giving speeches on public service. When the invitations came in, we would just send his regrets. When people look at Alzheimer's families from the outside, they see the dependent, childlike parent now cared for by their offspring -- and it seems that the roles are simply reversed. Not so. The truth is, no matter what our age, we feel like children. No matter who you are, what you've accomplished, what your financial situation is -- when you're dealing with a parent with Alzheimer's, you yourself feel helpless. The parent can't work, can't live alone, and is totally dependent, like a toddler. As the disease unfolds, you don't know what to expect. As a doctor once told me, "Once you've seen one case of Alzheimer's...you've seen one case of Alzheimer's."
I wrote a book called, What's Happening to Grandpa? At the time, I said I wrote it to help my children understand what was happening. In truth, I wrote it to explain Alzheimer's to myself. But when I wanted to turn it into a television special -- to shine some light on this subject -- no one was interested. I was told Alzheimer's wasn't big enough -- it was just "an old person's disease."
Then, almost out of nowhere, came what I call The Alzheimer's turning point. In March of 2007, a national newspaper reported that the number of people with Alzheimer's was ballooning -- rising by 10% in just the previous five years. It reported that fully 13% of Americans had Alzheimer's -- that meant one in eight people over the age of 65. And unless a cure were found, there would be more than 13 million people with Alzheimer's by 2050. The number has been revised even further upward since then.
That was the wakeup call Baby Boomers needed. After all, we are the generation who believed our brain-span would match our life-span. But now we were confronted with an epidemic -- an epidemic that wasn't just happening to "them." An epidemic that would happen to "us," too. And that scared us to death. All of a sudden, it seemed to me that people really started paying attention, and Alzheimer's became front-page news.
On Mother's Day, May 10th, HBO will air and I will executive produce the most comprehensive television event ever about Alzheimer's disease called The Alzheimer's Project -- focusing on the cutting-edge science, the issues of care-giving, how one lives with the disease, and the children and grandchildren of Alzheimer's.
It is time for this attention. Because someone is diagnosed in this country with Alzheimer's every 70 seconds. And fully one third of Americans have a direct experience with this disease. The epidemic is growing.