11 Examples of Hollywood Weaving Alzheimer’s into a Storyline

Several years ago, I used to ask my friend Lindsay to pre-watch episodes of Grey’s Anatomy before me. If I knew in advance that a storyline was going to feature Meredith’s mother or Richard’s wife, I needed to know just how intense the plot was going to get. This advance knowledge was essential to me, because I spent nearly seven years as the primary caregiver for my grandmother who battled Alzheimer’s disease. Storylines featuring characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia, if done well, can turn me inside out. However, I am so thankful to the writers of Hollywood for bringing these characters to life.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Today, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. It is only fitting that our TV shows and movies are starting to reflect this reality.

Take a look at Alzheimer’s in TV and Film:

  • Alzheimer’s Storylines in TV and Film 1 of 12

    Within a variety of genres, Alzheimer's and dementia is becoming a key storyline in many films and TV shows. Find out how some of our favorites have introduced characters who are living with and battling the disease.

  • Ellis and Adele on Grey’s Anatomy 2 of 12

    Grey's Anatomy had two characters that had large Alzheimer's storylines. Ellis Grey, Meredith's mother, had early onset Alzheimer's, and in the first seasons of the show, we often saw the character of Meredith in the role of a family caregiver. In 2009, the show found a creative way to raise awareness for Alzheimer's disease when they created a wedding registry for Meredith and Derrick that allowed fans to donate directly to the Alzheimer's Association. 


    In 2012 Adele, who was Dr. Richard Weber's wife, realizes she actually has Alzheimer's. The episode was so beautifully and perfectly done. 


    Image Credit: Grey's Wiki

  • Allie in The Notebook 3 of 12

    While The Notebook is a very glammed up presentation of dementia and Alzheimer's, it has mainstreamed the disease in a way that no other film has. Alzheimer's ends up being the surprise twist in a dramatic love story. I encounter people all the time who want to talk to me about the plot of this film and when they get to "the big reveal," they are just devastated. It truly is heartbreaking to imagine forgetting the love of your life. 


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Lenny in The Savages 4 of 12

    The Savages is a bittersweet comedy about the swift learning curve that happens when you find yourself the family caregiver to someone with dementia. I did a LOT of cringing when I watched this movie. I chuckled at a few scenes, but mostly I asked myself if I was offended. I think if I had seen this film before I became a caregiver, I would have been more amused because the moments would have been more abstract. Instead, I just found myself thinking the characters played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman were chumps.


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Barbara June "Maw Maw" on Raising Hope 5 of 12

    The character of Maw Maw on Raising Hope generates mixed feelings for people within the Alzheimer's community. Some say the character, played by Cloris Leachman, is making fun of people living with Alzheimer's. There is even a petition to the Fox network to curb the dementia jokes. Cloris says she is playing Maw Maw based on a character from her real life: her mother-in-law, actress Mabel Albertson. "She was so darling and so lovely and always kept her sense of humor. She never lost her (comedic) timing."


    Image Credit: Amazon

  • Dorothy on Mad Men 6 of 12

    Pete Campbell begins taking care of his mother, Dorothy, in season six of Mad Men. We learn through her behavior that she has dementia and probably Alzheimer's. Dorothy's storyline proceeds to get more and more bizarre, as it includes Pete hiring a male nurse who may or may not be a gigolo and an odd "lost at sea" mystery. 


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Lesley on Coronation Street 7 of 12

    One of the most watched shows in the UK is Coronation Street, and in 2011 they introduced a large dementia (a symptom of Alzheimer's) storyline, which also involved caregiver's guilt. Jeremy Hughes, from Alzheimer's UK, was thrilled to have such a large show spotlight the disease. "It is good to see Coronation Street featuring a dementia storyline and one that tackles such a rarely spoken about subject. If a carer develops feelings for someone else they may feel very guilty. Having such a high profile soap covering the issue will hopefully enable more people to feel comfortable talking about it. We know from talking to people that everyone experiences dementia differently and relationships they have are very different too."


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Fiona in Away From Her 8 of 12

    There is a reason why so many people suggest the film Away From Her to people who are just starting their journey on the Alzheimer's road. Out of all of the films I have seen where Alzheimer's is the primary plot device, this one captures the heartbreak the best. Roger Ebert, in a review that made me weep, wrote, "With the death of every person we have known, our mutual memories become only personal, and then when we die the memories die. In a sense those remembered events never happened. Death wipes the slate clean at once, which is a mercy compared to the light of recognition that slowly fades in the eyes of loved ones who have Alzheimer's."


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Caroline Brady on Days of Our Lives 9 of 12

    Peggy McCay, who plays Caroline Brady on Days of Our Lives, recognizes how important it is to the viewers to get an Alzheimer's story right. Peggy shares, "When we have millions of viewers like we do, this issue is in their lives. I'm sure, some way, they were touched - their family or their friends - by this type of disease." 


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Iris 10 of 12

    Iris is based on the memoirs of Professor John Bayley, who was the husband of Iris Murdoch, a celebrated novelist. The film travels between two versions of Iris, the young version played by Kate Winslet and the elder by Judi Dench. As we flip back and forth, we begin to see dementia. I found this movie incredibly sad and tragic. David Wilkinson, who is a consultant in old age psychiatry, found the film believable in how it documented how dementia can lead to isolation. He says, "It is clear from John Bayley's books that he wanted no help with caring and sought to keep things as they had always been. The film believably portrays why so many carers feel that way. It also brilliantly charts the descent into squalor. Patients with dementia can become unappetising, and seeing the sort of house that I regularly visit displayed on a big screen reminds me of how immune one gets to these surroundings."


    Image Credit: Wikipedia

  • Yang Mi-ja in Poetry 11 of 12

    I have only seen the trailer and read about the South Korean film, Poetry. I am really intrigued by the idea of a woman who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's who decides to take a poetry class. Justin Chang writes in his review on Variety, "At no point does Poetry devolve into a terminal-illness melodrama or a tale of intergenerational bonding." Watch the trailer for Poetry

  • Junior Soprano on The Sopranos 12 of 12

    Dominic Chianese, the actor who played Junior Soprano, was a caregiver for his mother who had dementia. Neurology Now had this to say about Dominic: "One of TV's hottest shows, The Sopranos, has thrust Chianese and Alzheimer's into the public consciousness in a way no educational program could."


    Image Credit: Amazon 

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