There is no known cure for Alzheimer's Disease, which currently affects over 5.3 million Americans and over 26 million worldwide, numbers which are expected to increase as Baby Boomers reach retirement age. In the United States, it is the seventh-leading cause of death, and the second most feared. Anyone who has lost a loved one to the disease knows just how utterly devastating it can be.
"But there is hope." These four words come from the "multi-platform" educational series "The Alzheimer's Project," produced by HBO and the National Institute on Aging in an attempt to raise awareness for both the disease and the great strides currently underway in the search for a cure. The project consists of a four-part documentary series created for HBO, a supplemental collection of fifteen short films, an educational website, and a companion book.
The documentaries cover a complete range of valuable information, essentially divided into two halves: three of the films study AD from a personal angle, offering a close-up view of how the disease is affecting the lives of victims as well as family, friends, and other caregivers; the final film is a two-part look at the science of Alzheimer's, from its causes to new discoveries in how to battle it.
(In an effort to reach the largest audience possible, HBO originally broadcast the series "unscrambled," making the films available to all cable/satellite subscribers, not just premium viewers. It has also posted the entire series online for free streaming viewing.)
The series opens with "The Memory Loss Tapes," a profile of seven people living in different stages of AD - we meet them in a sort of progression, from those getting by (so far) reasonably well to those who have lost nearly all means of function. Because there is no "typical" manner in which Alzheimer's affects patients, this is possibly the best way to introduce viewers to the disease.
It's also flat-out overwhelming. Each profile is a peek into a family's heartache. Even someone as chipper as Joe is aware of the impending struggle; he keeps a blog to document his fading memory and lightheartedly discusses his plans for suicide. (His wife, while accepting, is visibly upset as he shows off the container he's bought for his ashes.) For Bessie, AD means a loss of independence, no longer able to drive her own car.
Patients at advanced stages of the disease become great burdens on their caregivers. Josephine's childlike wandering means her daughter must work from home and spend nearly every minute watching her; Yolanda, completely lost to dementia, screams of visions of snakes all around her, and the nursing home employees are at a loss at how to convince her the serpents do not exist; Woody is a chipper old soul, always whistling, somehow able to remember the lyrics to all his favorite tunes - yet he doesn't recognize his wife or daughter, and often doesn't know where he is.
And so on. Each story is a profile in heartbreak. The same holds for the next two films, which shift the focus, slightly, from patient to family. In "Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? With Maria Shriver" (yes, that's the actual title; the film is a spin-off of Shriver's children's book "What's Happening to Grandpa?"), we study AD from the perspective of children and teens. Here, we follow a handful of youths as they cope with their grandparents' illnesses - and receive healthy advice along the way, divided into five "lessons." This advice comes from Shriver, who interrupts the film from time to time to reassure kids that it's OK to be afraid, to understand that sometimes AD makes people say and do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, that "there are no silly questions," etc.
Shriver's involvement puts a familiar face on the subject, but it's hardly a vanity project; her own father has Alzheimer's, and she's sincere in her hopes to teach others. (She also bravely lets her guard down from time to time, her genuine sorrow peeking through her steady composure.)
But the real focus is with the kids themselves. We're introduced to several youngsters, some of whom are asked to care for their grandparents on a daily basis, while others visit nursing homes and must accept that their visits will go forgotten by relatives who never recognize them. In interview asides, these kids' emotions come through with poignant honesty - many break down in tears over the thought of grandparents fading away.
"Caregivers" rounds out this trilogy, and tonally it's much like "The Memory Loss Tapes," but with slightly more attention paid to family members. Five families take the spotlight, and like the first film, this, too, positions its cases in a sort of progression. The couples' hard work carries them from home care to hospitals to nursing homes, and the devotion shown here is repeatedly remarkable. Again, we're reminded that living with an AD patient is an endless job, and the work continues even after the difficult choice is made to move a loved one into assisted living. (Mike spent two years caring for his father before placing him in a home; he explains that "when the time comes, you'll know.")
All three films, separately and collectively, are overwhelming in their raw portrait of loss, yet throughout there is always a sense of optimism. The love each subject displays is enormous - how else could they get through such ordeals? - and the film ends with hope, its final story telling of Terry, whose experiences with his late wife's AD led him to volunteer at a senior center, where he now helps others suffering from the disease. The message is clear: patients may be facing a frightening, debilitating illness, but with love, kindness, and decency, they will not have to face it alone.
These films are so emotionally charged that the final entry, "Momentum in Science," becomes a welcome reprieve, cutting back on the emotion and looking at things from a textbook perspective. Presented in the style of a "Nova" episode and divided into two one-hour halves, "Momentum" is a more clinical - yet never dull - take on the disease, its history, and current research breakthroughs.
Numerous scientists and researchers provide interviews that explain what we know about Alzheimer's, and their information is supplemented with on-screen text that, like those old science books from school, include bold word terms that, if you wish, you can research further online via the Project website. The program is divided nicely into short chapters which help keep the information accessible and clear.
Interesting moments include explanations of past discoveries, from the work done by Alois Alzheimer to the breakthroughs of the 1980s and beyond. We're shown how brain elements known as "plaques" and "tangles" are associated with the illness, walked through scenes of MRIs and patient analysis, even shown the difficult work of studying a brain postmortem. (For squeamish viewers, yes, there are a couple shots of brains removed from the body and dissected, but there's nothing exploitive about these scenes, which are presented in a direct yet restrained honesty.)
Other chapters reveal common sense solutions to help prevent Alzheimer's. Popular reports lately have told of how mental stimulation - puzzles, games, reading, anything that offers a good workout for the mind - is a strong method of keeping AD at bay. But the film also suggests two more terrific options: exercise and a healthy diet. Both give your brain the immunity power it needs to keep dangerous levels of plagues and tangles from taking control. Hypertension, diabetes, even smoking have been known to be factors in the disease, so doing what you can to stay healthy has the double benefit of keeping your brain in top condition, too.
The rest of the program - indeed, what seems like the majority of it - is given to scientists boasting about hopeful advances that may one day lead to a cure. There's no cure now, the film reminds us, and all pharmaceutical treatments currently in use are only able to slow AD's spread. But the experts here are optimistic that a cure is out there; we just have to find it.
Such optimism is not meant to replace the intent of the rest of the Project, however. "Hope" is the Project's key word, and hope is what keeps research moving forward, but we must also deal with the reality of the disease as it stands right now. And that's what these four films do. They help us understand AD from both a clinical angle and, more importantly, a human one.
HBO collects all four films of "The Alzheimer's Project" onto three discs. Disc One contains "The Memory Loss Tapes," "Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? With Maria Shriver," and "Caregivers." Disc Two contains parts one and two of "Momentum in Science." Disc Three contains the short films of the Supplementary Series, detailed below.
The discs come in three slimline cases which fit into a cardboard slipcover. Also included is a sixteen-page "program guide" booklet that offers brief information on the Project, the numerous experts interviewed within, and each of the various films.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the four films rely on a variety of source materials (including decades-old archival footage), resulting in a variety of image quality, as expected. The newly produced segments which make up a vast majority of the Project all look downright stunning, with razor-sharp detail and crisp, vibrant colors. (Were these shot in HD? I wouldn't doubt it.)
The soundtrack is a simple Dolby stereo, which does a fine job of presenting dialogue and music. Nothing fancy is needed here, and everything comes through with fine clarity. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Twelve Supplemental Series shorts add an extra three hours, forty-three minutes to the already hefty material. These consist mainly of additional information fitting alongside "Momentum in Science," although the personal touch is never too far away.
The titles of shorts are fairly self-explanatory, and all twelve are highly educational and highly involving. The shorts presented on this disc are: "Understanding and Attacking Alzheimer's" (12:26), "How Far We Have Come in Alzheimer's Research" (15:19), "Identifying Mild Cognitive Impairment" (20:40), "The Role of Genetics in Alzheimer's" (14:19), "Advances in Brain Imaging" (13:13), "Looking into the Future of Alzheimer's" (10:08), "The Connection Between Insulin and Alzheimer's" (21:50), "Inflammation, the Immune System, and Alzheimer's" (29:22), "The Benefit of Diet and Exercise in Alzheimer's" (16:46), "Cognitive Reserve: What the Religious Orders Study Is Revealing About Alzheimer's" (22:02), "Searching for an Alzheimer's Cure: The Story of Flurizan" (31:19), and "The Pulse of Drug Development" (15:54). (Note: The final three Supplemental Series shorts available online are not included in this set.)
All short films are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and include optional English and Spanish subtitles.
The sheer quantity of information in "The Alzheimer's Project" can be overwhelming, as can the emotional power of the stories told. But these films are an invaluable educational tool, helping to increase our understanding of a hideous disease. This set is Highly Recommended, especially to families dealing with AD, teachers eager for a classroom supplement, and anyone eager for some poignant storytelling.