It was 2003 and Maria Shriver had begun her tenure as first lady of California when her father, Sargent Shriver — U.S. ambassador to France, 1972 vice presidential candidate and the first director and co-founder of the Peace Corps — was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a ravaging brain disease that, according to statistics procured from the Alzheimer’s Assn., affects some 5.8 million Americans and 50 million individuals globalwide. Sargent Shriver died of the disease in 2011.
While societal awareness of Alzheimer’s has grown over the past several years, at the time of her father’s diagnosis, Shriver, selected as Variety’s Entertainment Philanthropist of the Year for her role as founder of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM), was left muddling through a morass of unanswered questions. Doctors, neurologists, scientists — they were conducting clinical studies on Alzheimer’s. But there were gaping holes in what conclusive facts that research had thus far yielded. In 2003, Alzheimer’s remained very much a misunderstood, underfunded and underpublicized disease. This was maddening to Shriver, a seasoned investigative journalist whose notable career — from her days as network news weekend anchor and correspondent to her her award-winning reports on “Dateline NBC” to her special anchor post on “NBC Nightly News” — embraced the dogged pursuit of truth.
“The more I questioned as a journalist, as a daughter, as a woman, the more I found that I had to really chart my own path there,” says Shriver. “I looked for a children’s book about it so I could explain what Alzheimer’s was to my kids. I couldn’t find one, so I went and wrote one.”
“What’s Happening to Grandpa?” was published in 2004 and became an instant bestseller. In 2009, Shriver earned two Emmy Awards for co-producing the five-part HBO documentary series “The Alzheimer’s Project.”
“Thus began my foray into trying to understand the Alzheimer’s space,” says Shriver.
Driven and determined, Shriver drew on her platform as first lady of California to do whatever she could to educated about Alzheimer’s and debunk the myths surrounding the disease. She organized a women’s conference on the subject and was conducting breakout sessions for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients when she discovered that an inordinate amount of women — more so than men, it appeared — were stricken with the disease.
“More and more women came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for doing this, my mom has Alzheimer’s,’ ” says Shriver. “And I thought, there are a lot of women with Alzheimer’s. And so I would ask all the doctors that I was meeting, ‘Why is it that I think there are more women than men with Alzheimer’s?’ And the doctors would answer, ‘No, no, that’s just not the case. You just think that because women live longer.’ And whenever people in my life have told me, ‘No, you just think that,’ I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t think so.’ So I decided to research and find out.”
At the time, Shriver was acting as caregiver not only to