Maria Shriver: Living with Alzheimer's in the Family

Calif. first lady Maria Shriver gives inside look at Alzheimer's in HBO film.

May 6, 2009, 3:58 PM

May 6, 2009 — -- Her face may be recognizable to millions of Americans, but when California first lady Maria Shriver visits her father, he has no idea who she is.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease six years ago, Sargent Shriver has motivated his daughter to get involved with an upcoming four-part HBO documentary, "The Alzheimer's Project."

"I think you have to recalibrate yourself every single time you see your father, and you have to introduce yourself to him," Shriver told "Good Morning America" today.

When she walks into his room, Shriver must tell her father that she is his daughter and that her name is Maria.

"He'll go, 'Oh my goodness, you are?'" she said.

She has become so passionate about the effects of Alzheimer's that she even testified before Congress. Afterward, she said her office was inundated with letters from people who relate to what's happening to her family and her father.

"At the age of 93, my dad still goes to Mass every day. And believe it or not, he still remembers the Hail Mary. But he doesn't remember me, Maria," she said before Congress last month. "I'd be lying if I didn't admit that still makes me cry."

Shriver said she wants to tell her father what's going on in her life but can only support him and make him comfortable.

She said she's realized that all she can do is love and accept him for who he is now, not who he was or who she wants him to be.

"And that's a pretty good lesson for life in general," she said.

Shriver, who was the co-executive producer on "The Alzheimer's Project," which begins airing on May 10, said she hopes the documentary will reach a broad audience in tackling topics like memory loss, living with Alzheimer's disease and the science of finding a cure.

The Future of Alzheimer's

Someone gets Alzheimer's disease every 70 seconds and, currently, 5.3 million people in the United States live with the condition, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The fight to learn more about the disease and pinpoint a cure has become more fevered as millions of baby boomers march toward their senior years. It all adds up to a heavy burden on the health care system.

The direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias to Medicaid and Medicare amounts to more than $148 billion annually, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The financial burden also falls to those caring for an Alzheimer's patient.

Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, told "Good Morning America" that the disease is much more than forgetting a friend's name momentarily or misplacing the car keys.

It's time to worry, he said, "when memory becomes more difficult, when it becomes persistent, when it interferes with life functions."

Hodes said he's expecting some kind of major breakthrough on how doctors understand Alzheimer's in the next year or so.

On the organization's Web site, you can find message boards, create a calendar to keep track of tasks with your family, and locate assisted living facilities in your area.

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