Six years ago Maria Shriver learned that her father, Sargent Shriver, then 87, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. At the time, Maria says now, she could not have predicted the profound journey she and her family would make as they tried to understand—and cope with—the devastating disease.
The journalist, author, and mother of four even wrote a book, What's Happening to Grandpa? (Little, Brown, 2004), to help young people make sense of it all. Today, as an executive producer of The Alzheimer's Project, a four-part documentary (with companion book, DVD, and website), the 53-year-old Shriver—who is married to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—is aiming to reach a broader audience. Her hope, she says, is that the series will help "lift the veil of shame" still associated with the disease, which afflicts 5 million Americans, and give viewers the sense of urgency needed to help find a cure.
Q: Why should more people be concerned about Alzheimer's? Early-onset numbers are rising. This is a disease that will affect people in their 50s and 60s. And with Alzheimer's you are out of commission on every level. You need 24-hour-a-day care, but we don't have enough caretakers and facilities.
Q: What did this project teach you that you didn't already know? I wasn't aware of the depth and breadth of research, how long it's been going on, and how many trials had failed. While that work is hopeful, it's also daunting. And there are still a lot of people who don't want to talk about the disease. It's too painful. That surprises me.
Q: How is your dad? He still looks terrific, but he doesn't know who I am.
Q: How have your children handled this? My kids have taught me a lot. They find great joy in talking to my father. They think it's fascinating—and they don't have the emotional baggage that I do. When they were younger they used to ask me, "Is that going to happen to you?"
Q: Are you afraid of getting Alzheimer's? You betcha. Bigtime.
Q: What do you do to try to prevent it? I exercise. I eat a lot of broccoli. I don't drink or smoke. I try to stay mentally active. [On the other hand] I don't do crossword puzzles and Sudoku. But my father was the smartest, most literary, actively intellectual, and engaged human being I've ever known, and he got Alzheimer's. I try not to freak out, and I live in the moment.