Shriver: National Policy on Alzheimer's Needed

The California first lady brings attention to Alzheimer's and its caregivers.

Oct. 19, 2010 — -- This election cycle, Maria Shriver, the first lady of California, wants to make sure that women use their votes to support new policies on Alzheimer's and its caregivers.

"It's an exciting time for women in this country," she told Diane Sawyer during a recent interview for "World News." "I think we can really push the envelope. We can get people's attention."

And what Shriver wants people to notice is her extensive new report on Alzheimer's titled "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Takes on Alzheimer's."

A collaborative research effort between Shriver and the Alzheimer's Association, it calls on society and government to address the needs of patients and caregivers, fund more research into treatment for Alzheimer's and other brain diseases, and help people prepare for the possibility of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

She said the job of a caregiver is 24/7. "Caregivers end up spending about $5 billion on their own health," she said. "People who do the caretaking are at much more risk of depresssion, and increased chances of getting Alzheimer's."

"Caregivers need to learn to ask for help. They need to join support groups," she said, adding that the nation needs to get involved.

Much of the information in the report comes from the Alzheimer's Association's 2010 Women and Alzheimer's Poll, which involved interviews with more than 3,100 people, including more than 500 caregivers. The poll shows the deleterious effects of trying to maintain a full-time job while caring for someone with Alzheimer's.

Women Caregivers Under Siege, Stressed

Shriver said that women spent about 40 hours a week caring for relatives, on top of parenting and working. She said as she traveled around the United States, women told her they felt as if they were under siege.

"Businesses aren't responsive. The government isn't responsive. The media isn't responsive," Shriver said they told her.

Shriver said that more employers needed to offer flexible hours and talk with their workers about their situations at home.

"Many of the people who responded to the polls [from the report] said they either had to come in late, downshift their job or leave it all together because [of] doctor's appointments, waiting ... not finding somebody who could help their parent," she said. "They're in a very vulnerable situation."

Shriver: 'No National Policy for Alzheimer's'

She said that there was no national policy for Alzheimer's, although other countries have them.

"I think this president and this Congress can stand up and say, 'This is a national epidemic,'" Shriver said. "We can get a national strategy. If we launch a national endeavor to underscore and find out what's going on in the brain, I think we can get the money."

But first, she said, families and individuals need to start having conversations about caregiving plans and Alzheimer's with one another today.

"Seventy percent of families said they have no conversation ever about long-term care options," Shriver said. "Only 7 million Americans have long-term care insurance. There's a lot of preparation that can be done in homes across this country today."

In 2009, Shriver built the nation's first intergenerational playground in Sacramento, Calif., which allowed people of all ages to gather and play -- a great asset to women who have children and who also care for elderly parents.

Shriver, who has also produced a documentary and written a book on Alzheimer's, encouraged family members and friends of those living with the disease to fight back.

'March, Raise Money, Use Your Voice"

"You can march. You can try to raise money. You can use your voice in a very empowering way," she said. "People are so grateful to have this disease put on the front burner."

She said she believed that money could be found or raised for more research on diseases that affect the brain, especially as 77 million baby boomers begin turning 65.

"I never really listen to people who say, 'There's no money for this and no, you can't,'" Shriver said. "I just try to find a way around them. There's gotta be some money somewhere."

Caring for a Parent With Alzheimer's

Shriver said she started trying to understand Alzheimer's after her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2003. At the same time she was caring for her father, she also took care of her mother, who died in 2009.

"It's very hard to get your mind around the fact that that person is sitting there across from you, and they look like your mother or your father but they have no memory of the relationship you have," she said.

Shriver said that while she tended to be more emotional regarding her father, her brothers handled their father in a way that stunned and amazed her.

"They take care of my dad, they brush his hair, they suit him up and when he gets disagreeable, they play with him," she said.

This year's report builds on last year's "Shriver Report, A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," which found that about two-thirds of women are now not only their family's breadwinner but also a wife, mother and caretaker for elderly or sick relatives.

"I think more and more men are stepping forward to be caretakers of their wives, of their mothers, and they're learning a whole new side of themselves," she said. "Women need the help. Women need the support. We can't do this on our own. It's good for families and it's good for American business and politics."

ABC News' Kim Carollo contributed to this article.

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