LIANE HANSEN, host:
A new four-part documentary series called The Alzheimer's Project debuts on HBO tonight. Alzheimer's is an irreversible and progressive brain disorder that destroys memory and can ravage the body. The series not only examines the medical and scientific aspects of Alzheimer's, it also exposes the human side of this debilitating disease, which affects millions of Americans and their families.
(Soundbite of documentary, The Alzheimer's Project)
Unidentified Child: At first, when I was younger, she would forget where to put things. But then the disease got worse and she couldnt remember who I was.
HANSEN: That excerpt is from one episode that was inspired by Maria Shriver's book, Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? Maria Shriver is also an executive producer of The Alzheimer's Project. And she joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
Ms. MARIA SHRIVER (Executive Producer, The Alzheimer's Project): Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: This is a personal project for you. Your father, Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed in 2003. What have the last six years been like for you and your children?
Ms. SHRIVER: Well, theyve been a rollercoaster, I would say, first, for my four brothers, my mother, and myself, obviously for my father, as well. And as my children have gotten older, it has been, I think, a learning experience for them. I would say less of a rollercoaster for them because they have fewer memories of the way my father used to be. And I think for children of Alzheimer's, at no matter what their age, they keep trying to make the person, be it their mother or their father, into who they were. And it's very hard to accept who they are.
And my children were very good at just saying to me, look, just go with the conversation now. Dont try to correct him. Dont try to make him the man you remember. Just go with whatever he's doing right now. And they have found a humor in the way my dad is and the way they can just talk to him.
HANSEN: You give a series of guidelines during the course of your episode. You talked about going with the flow and who that person is today. There is also another piece of advice that it's the disease talking - it's not the grandparent. And we see one grandparent get angry and it's so emotional.
Ms. SHRIVER: Well, they estimate that there's over a quarter of a million young kids in America today who are taking care of Alzheimer's grandparents. And when you have somebody who has Alzheimer's, mood swings and anger and humor, all these different things, are part of the disease.
I always say to my children, imagine yourself in your grandparents' place. You don't know who these people are, you don't know where you are, you're confused. Imagine what would blurt out of your mouth if you were in that situation.
HANSEN: I don't want to neglect some of the other episodes and the scientists and the doctors and the researchers who are talking about finding the causes of the disease, a cure, maybe a way to prevent it. I don't know, it sounds a little bit like what people were saying about cancer ten years ago, and we're not quite sure how far that's come. Are you optimistic about the future?
Ms. SHRIVER: Well, I have to be, because the numbers and the opposite is too daunting. You bring up cancer - you see people in remission all the time today with cancer. Theres a lot of drugs that exists today that didn't exist five, six years ago. The difference, I think, with Alzheimer's, what's scarier about it is you don't see people in remission, you don't see people who are survivors.
There are about 92 clinical trials underway. Many of the doctors who are interviewed in The Alzheimer's Project talk about their hope that the cure is in some clinical trial that's out there. Do I know whether that's around the corner or ten years down the pike? I don't. Do I believe it's possible? Yes, I do, and I have to believe that.
HANSEN: Sure. Baby boomers will be reaching retirement age and the projections are that the cases of Alzheimer's are going to be getting higher than they are now.
Ms. SHRIVER: Oh, much higher. This will be, as I call it, the baby boomers' epidemic. It's not going to be heart disease, it's going to be Alzheimer's. In fact, all the polls show that people 55 and older fear Alzheimer's more than any other single thing. So I always say, like, okay, you're afraid of that, let's go to work together to try to stop that, to try to slow that down.
Baby boomers have already reached retirement age and many of them are sitting there going, who's going to take care of me? How am I going to be able to afford that? There aren't enough assisted living facilities. So the option is to find a cure.
HANSEN: Do you worry that you may get it?
Ms. SHRIVER: Absolutely, absolutely. And anybody my age should be terrified. And anybody who has a parent whos 70 years old or older should be concerned, should be on the lookout, should be involved, really. Because it's possible that you're going to be dealing with Alzheimer's in the not-too-distant future. My children look at me and say, mommy, is that going to happen to you? I don't want that to happen to you.
So my children need to know about Alzheimer's, and they need to work for a cure. I need to know about it, and I need to work for a cure. We can do better when it comes to Alzheimer's, and we must do better.
HANSEN: Maria Shriver is an executive producer of "The Alzheimer's Project," which begins on HBO tonight. She joined us from New York. Thank you for your time.
Ms. SHRIVER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: You can watch a clip of "The Alzheimer's Project" on our Web site, NPR.org.
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