A few years after my beautiful mother Adele was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at age 55, I was in a dark hole of anger and bitterness. Back then I had a conversation with a dear friend, who insisted that although losing my mother piece by piece to a disease with no treatment or cure was cruel and awful, there had to be a way to find a positive. "There must be some way to let the light in!" she said, trying to pull me from the abyss. "Nope! It's all just the worst thing ever!" I grumbled back.
But I can tell you now, six or seven years later, that I was so, so wrong. There can be so much light in even the cruelest darkness, and some of the most beautiful lights are the connections I've made with the other people who are using their voices to change the course of this shitty disease. And one of the strongest, most special bonds I have made is with Maria Shriver.
She's worked as a journalist, an author, an activist, a producer, and the First Lady of California — all while raising four awesome children. Maria has been a tireless advocate for modern American women and their unique needs through her nonprofit, nonpartisan Shriver Report initiative. And she has taken her personal experience of losing her father, the late, great Sargent Shriver, to Alzheimer's disease and become one of the most powerful Alzheimer's advocates in the world. Her children's book What's Happening to Grandpa not only continues to help explain Alzheimer's to young people every day, but it also grew into her Emmy-winning HBO four-part documentary series The Alzheimer's Project. She dedicated the 2010 edition of "The Shriver Report" to taking on Alzheimer's and has focused her organization The Women's Alzheimer's Movement on how the disease disproportionately affects women.
But above all, she is one of the coolest, smartest, and kindest women around. On top of being truly hard-working and totally inspiring for her dedication to improving the lives of women (and all humans), she's a mom who fiercely loves her kids and throws Sunday dinners — complete with pigs in a blanket. Since I first met her five years ago, I've been so lucky to get to know Maria Shriver, and I often look to her for inspiration on how to be a woman who fights for what she believes in.
Maria has interviewed my husband and me a few times over the years about our Alzheimer's-awareness movement Hilarity for Charity, and rudely, I've never interviewed her! Fortunately, a few weeks ago, I got to turn the tables on her. We talked about how she and her family dealt with her father's illness, the future of Alzheimer's research, and what you can be doing to prevent the disease.
Lauren Miller Rogen: I'm curious about when you started noticing Alzheimer's symptoms in your dad, and how you and your family face the stigma that surrounds Alzheimer's?
Maria Shriver: I didn't worry too much about the stigma. I think my brothers, my mother, and I wanted my dad to be able to go out, to be treated with dignity. He wrote a letter explaining his diagnosis, and off he went. We thought that it was important that he write the letter because he was asked to give so many speeches all the time, and we didn't want him to be giving a speech and then lose his way, and people think, Well, what's up with that?
I think he was received in a very loving, gracious, and generous way. He continued to go to the office. We got a driver for him who doubled as a caretaker, but we disguised him for a while as a driver. It unfolded. Like anybody knows, it was different every month, every week, and every year.