Posted: 05/05/2009


The Alzheimer’s Project On HBO

by Laura Tucker

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I’ve always been fascinated with the way people think, what makes them tick, and just as fascinated when something seems to go wrong with that process. I have a daughter with a learning disability, friends with MS, am in the process of reading Michael J. Fox’s latest book (review to follow when I’m done, of course), and my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of all this, when I heard about the upcoming series on HBO, The Alzheimer’s Project, I knew I needed to check out this four-part series.

Because I’m so fascinated by the disease and its effects, the whole series captivated me, but even more than the science of the disease and its research, it was the stories of these people who have had Alzheimer’s Disease touch their lives that drew me in. It was these characters and their caregivers and family members that made me feel and took me back to my grandma’s last years of her life. Where HBO succeeds is that they just show us these people that are suffering through varying degrees of the disease and in different stages, without too much editorializing.

We meet a woman who has recently been diagnosed, a woman who faces losing her independence with having her driving privileges taken away, a man telling his loved ones that when he realizes he has lost a sense of who he is, he will take his own life, a man whose knowledge doesn’t “stick” with him for more than a few moments, and a man suffering through the last weeks of his life because of the disease, among others. We meet entire families that carry the disease, and we meet the caregivers that devote their whole lives to taking care of their sick loved ones. Maria Shriver also hosts one part of the series dealing with the young children and grandchildren that live with or visit their grandparents with the disease. Shriver’s own father has Alzheimer’s.

What strikes me now is something I realized watching my own grandmother suffer. This disease attacks people that were once known to be brilliant and creative. It’s like the ultimate Catch-22. They’ve worked so hard with their brilliance and creativity all their lives, and now when they should be able to sit back and relax, they’re robbed of the very essence of who they are.

We see a man who was integral to the computer age, a former bigwig in the industry, who admits he was once not just intelligent, but a genius. He now gets lost at the park, but says he doesn’t have AD, he has DDS, “Dead Dick Syndrome” the effects of his medication. A woman that painted beautiful pictures began covering them all up with white paint when she first diagnosed, and now arranges objects around the house artistically. She also puts pretty stones in her mouth and tries to eat them.

A man that lived his whole life with a beautiful singing voice, now walks around whistling what seems to be the same tune over and over. Despite being married and seeing his wife often, a woman with Alzheimer’s that lives in the same assisted living center has adopted him as her husband, following him around, snuggling, and kissing him. Another man was a magician, having a popular kids’ show on TV for years. He still thought he had to do a show every night, and his wife and nurse would fake phone calls to tell him the show had been cancelled for the night.

All of these stories touched me in a big way. Little pieces of each reminded me of my grandmother’s story. As adults visiting my grandparents in Florida on year, we couldn’t figure out why we had to go to the same buffet every night, and why she kept repeating herself. She was always such a big game player, mostly word games and cards. We would spend hours when I was growing up playing word games, as well as Double Solitaire, while I would fill her in on what was I doing at school and the rest of my life. For the first time ever, when we saw her this one time, she refused to play cards with us.

Another time I called her to let her now my mom’s surgery had been successful, and she didn’t know who I was. That was alarming. It wasn’t too much later that she got sick and had to be admitted to a nursing home. My grandfather had been hiding her illness for years, but he couldn’t do it anymore, as she was refusing to eat. He would spend all day in the nursing home, from breakfast until after dinner, similar to the story in the book and movie The Notebook, and the nurses said he was the only spouse there that did that.

My sister and I went down to visit our grandma in the nursing home for a few days. She didn’t remember who we were, no matter how much my grandpa had tried to jog her memory before then with pictures. We stayed and let him have a few well-deserved days off. She would talk about seeing kids getting off a bus and was worried about them, and still didn’t want to eat. She asked if she knew me at one point, and I said I was her granddaughter, Laura. I tried to jog her memory and said her and I shared the same middle name with a unique spelling. She thought for a long time and was very proud of herself to remember J-E-A-N-N-E. She talked about wanting to go into a light. We encouraged her, but it was another eight months before she passed away.

it’s because of stories like this and the ones in the HBO series that Alzheimer’s Disease is the most feared illness after cancer. The Alzheimer’s Project will debut on HBO on May 10th.

Laura Tucker  is the webmaster of Reality Shack and its accompanying Reality Shack Blog, provides reviews at Viewpoints, and provides entertainment news pieces at Gather. She is also an Associate Instructor and 2nd dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts. Laura can be reached at

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