Life With Gracie: Alzheimer’s disease is no laughing matter

Over the past few years, I've met nearly a dozen metro Atlantans suffering from Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia in older adults.

In all that time, I have yet to meet even one or a loved one who found the debilitating disease funny.

And so like so many others, I was shocked when I read late last week that Will Ferrell even considered accepting a role in a comedy project about Ronald Reagan’s second term in the mid-1980s, when he is thought to have begun showing symptoms of the disease that in 2004 killed him.

“The Reagan script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell,” his camp said in a statement. “While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project.”

Ferrell apparently backed out of the deal just days ago, but you have to wonder how the project made it as far as it did in the first place.

The Mike Rosolio script reportedly tells the story of an intern assigned to convince a confused Reagan that he is back in his acting days and playing the president in a movie.

Experts say 5.4 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, and as many as 10 million baby boomers are expected to develop the disease in the coming years. In fact, Alzheimer’s is quickly becoming the defining disease of the baby boomer generation and a budget-busting one for families, particularly women, who make up more than half of caregivers.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the average lifetime cost of care for an Alzheimer’s patient is $174,000. When I wrote a series of stories about the disease in 2011, the overall cost of health care, long-term care and hospice was $183 billion; by 2050, that cost is projected to be $1.1 trillion.

You’d think this would frighten us and instead of poking fun at those faced with the illness, we’d offer them our compassion.

I shouldn't have to say this, but Alzheimer's is not funny. It robs. It kills. It destroys people's lives. And one way or another, it touches all of us. At last count, 15 million family members provide care every day.

Who in their right minds would turn other people’s suffering into a spectacle to be laughed at or draw profit? Both are morally repugnant.

On Thursday, the late president's daughter, writer Patti Davis, published an open letter to Ferrell in which she shamed the comedian for trying to mine Alzheimer's and dementia for jokes.

“Alzheimer’s doesn’t care if you are President of the United States or a dockworker,” Davis wrote. “It steals what is most precious to a human being — memories, connections, the familiar landmarks of a lifetime that we all come to rely on to hold our place secure in this world and keep us linked to those we have come to know and love. I watched as fear invaded my father’s eyes — this man who was never afraid of anything. I heard his voice tremble as he stood in the living room and said, ‘I don’t know where I am.’ I watched helplessly as he reached for memories, for words, that were suddenly out of reach and moving farther away. For ten long years he drifted — past the memories that marked his life, past all that was familiar … and mercifully, finally past the fear.”

Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, said they were appalled that anyone would plan to develop a film that satirizes an individual living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

“The idea that a film depicting President Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, or anyone with dementia, as a comedic device is offensive,” Johns said. “This disease is not a joke. In addition to its devastating impact, it is fatal. The Alzheimer’s Association will rally against anyone who marginalizes the devastating and deadly impact of Alzheimer’s disease.

"President Reagan and his family were champions in raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease and the need to fund research for its cure. The Alzheimer's Association and our advocates will continue to work to ensure all those living with this disease have the care and support they need while striving toward our vision of a world without Alzheimer's."

That much all of us ought to be willing to get behind, but let’s hope this is the end of any comedy that would poke fun at any deadly disease.

I can’t think of one thing that would make me laugh.

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