October 17, 2010— -- Karen Parks understood when her 80-year-old mother was losing her memory, but her world came screeching to a sudden and devastating halt when her 56-year-old husband Jerry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.
"I could see myself sitting there. I thought to myself, 'should I be putting my arm around my husband? Am I hearing this right?' It just absolutely stops you cold," she said.
Jerry was at the peak of his career as a successful construction executive, but he was laid off when his memory began to fail.
With two of their children still at home, the Parks family was forced to downsize and Karen went back to work as a teacher -- after 20 years away from the profession.
Families like the Parks are the focus of a groundbreaking report by Maria Shriver's A Woman's Nation in collaboration with the Alzheimer's Assocation.
Maria Shriver, the first lady of California, sat down with "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour to discuss her extensive new report on Alzheimer's, "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Takes on Alzheimer's," which provides a compelling connection between Alzheimer's and Women.
After her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2003, Shriver's said she began a journey of trying to understand the disease That "turned [her] into…an activist to try to find a cure, bring attention to this disease and reduce some of the stigma."
"Sixty percent of the people who get it are women and they are also doing the caretaking" of people with the disease, Shriver said. And "millions of these women are also working full-time."
Part of her report included a poll which showed the deleterious effects of trying to maintain a full-time job while taking care of someone with Alzheimer's. Many polled said, because of their caregiving duties, they had to go into work late or leave early, take a leave of absence or even move to working part-time.
"The workplace and the government have not kept up with this change that's going on all across the country," Shriver said.
Shriver was joined on "This Week" by Ann O'Leary, executive director of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security at U.C. Berkeley and an expert on women and work. "It's a tremendous burden on families," O'Leary said. "We estimate that families are spending $56,000 a year -- they're paying out of pocket; [they] don't have any insurance for this."
What can be done, Amanpour asked.
"I think today employers can go and talk to their employees and say, 'do you need flexible hours?'" Shriver said. "This is particularly important to women who are in low-paying jobs and don't have the power. There's a lot of fear in the workplace today to even go and ask. Many of the people we polled said that they felt more comfortable asking for help with childcare than with eldercare," she said.
Sitting at the Newseum speaking with Amanpour, the U.S. Capitol building in front of her, Shriver said there were things the President and the Congress could do in the near-term to help alleviate the crisis.
Shriver said that Obama could launch an "expedition to the brain" like President John F. Kennedy launched an expedition to the moon.
"I think that this President could stand up and say that he understands that this is a national epidemic," Shriver said. "This Congress, right now, could go ahead and pass the National Alzheimer's Project Act. They could do that today," she said. That bill would "put an office in HHS and say this is going to be a priority, we need coordination, we need a strategy," she said.
"Families need to know that this Congress, that is sitting right behind you, is aware of this epidemic," Shriver said. "Two million kids under the age of 18 are caring for loved ones at home struggling with Alzheimer's. This is already happening. The only people who are not talking about it sit in that building," she said, pointing to the Capitol.
Jerry and Karen Parks hope the Government will provide more resources for families and more funding to find a cure.
"It is very hard to see your loved one that you want to spend forever with, losing parts of things and seeing how frustrating and hurt they feel when they can't do something," Karen said.
"Jerry and I decided we are going to make the best of it and he has a fabulous attitude," she added.
Jerry has come to see the possibilities in the time he has left. "When I got done with grieving, I thought this gives me a great opportunity, this gives me time to do the things I want to do," he said. "I think for us to be upbeat raises our family and friends up too."
Cindy Smith contributed to this report.