The Real Alzheimer's Controversy Has Nothing To Do With Will Ferrell

Photo: StarPix/REX/Shutterstock.
Lauren Miller Rogen is an actress, comedic writer, and cofounder of Hilarity for Charity, a movement dedicated to raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease among millennials.

A week ago, as I was procrastinating doing my "real work" as a screenwriter and founder of the Alzheimer's charity, Hilarity For Charity, I came across the news that Will Ferrell, one of my favorite comedians, would be doing a movie titled Reagan. "When Ronald Reagan falls into dementia at the start of his second term,” the synopsis read, “an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie."

As someone who has been losing her mother to Alzheimer's for over 10 years and has dedicated significant time to raising funds and awareness of the disease, I was interested to learn more. I have long advocated that Alzheimer's should be more prominent in movies and TV so that it can be destigmatized and humanized in the same way that cancer and HIV/AIDS have been. In order for Alzheimer’s to receive the funding it needs and deserves, it needs to be understood by the millions of people who think memory loss is a normal part of aging (it's not) or even funny (it's definitely not). So I tracked down the script in an attempt to understand what this movie might portray about the late president’s condition. I figured I should read it before jumping to conclusions as the rest of the internet seemed to be doing — lambasting Ferrell for his involvement in an “insensitive” project.

Before reading the first page, though, I heard that Ferrell had dropped out of the movie. Or, per his spokesman, he had only ever been considering it and now was no longer considering it. I thought to myself, Great. Problem solved. There won't be another movie depicting Alzheimer's in a false way, making it appear simple, light, or as something that can be easily defeated.

But I read the script anyway. And since you asked, here's my take: It's well-written and pokes more fun at the stupidity that surrounded the government in the late '80s than it does at Alzheimer’s. The word "Alzheimer's" isn't mentioned once: The disease is referred to simply as "dementia." And while I don't think the film does anything to destigmatize Alzheimer's (because it does not portray the disease in an accurate way), it does — as I'd hoped — include a poignant scene in which Reagan shows that he knows he is developing the disease. If only there were more of these serious moments in the script, the movie might help explain what it's actually like to have Alzheimer's or to lose someone you love to it.

Alzheimer's needs to be understood by those who think memory loss is a normal part of aging (it's not) or even funny (it's definitely not)

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Either way, it appears this film won't be getting made anytime soon. But none of that is the reason I'm writing this right now. The reason I'm writing is because I'm confused, and honestly a little angry — not about this unmade movie, but about the misplaced outrage of the media coverage it has received. I haven't seen this much Alzheimer's coverage since my husband, Seth Rogen, addressed the Senate three years ago about the need to take action against this disease, and even then, his message took a backseat to the fact that only two of the 16 senators on the panel he was invited to address showed up to hear him speak. Their poor attendance was the focus of the news, not the fact that 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, or that the government spends only $900 million on Alzheimer’s research while diseases such as cancer, HIV, and heart disease get billions (which, for the record, they also need and deserve — we’ve made huge strides in treatments for these diseases thanks to this very funding). After the news of Ferrell’s possible new role, the media and commenters were more interested in getting worked up about a movie that doesn’t even exist and then moving on to the next topic than they were in learning about the realities of this horrifying disease. Why does it take names like Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen to get people to finally talk about a condition that is actually horrifying — and about inaction that is actually worthy of our rage?

Be angry that by the year 2050, as many as 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer's. Be angry that my mother — a teacher for 35 years — stopped walking, talking, and being able to feed, dress or clean herself by the age of 60. Be angry that friends and family often disappear when your loved one starts showing signs of Alzheimer's. Be angry that families are suffering in the dark today, refusing to ask for help or even to talk about Alzheimer’s because of the stigma associated with the disease, despite President Reagan’s public disclosure of his diagnosis more than 20 years ago.

Alzheimer's is horrific. I cannot possibly explain to you the pain my family has experienced witnessing my mother disappear into this disease. Anyone who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer's knows what I'm talking about. If you got angry about Will Ferrell’s role in a hypothetical movie, I urge you to place that anger back on the fact that Alzheimer's is an epidemic that is still so misunderstood, Hollywood screenwriters are still writing insensitive scripts about it — and that it’s still very much underfunded by the government President Ronald Reagan once led. Don't attack #WillFerrell because he considered making a movie from a respected script. Hashtag how fucked up it is that it takes something like this to get the media to write articles about Alzheimer's and to get Alzheimer's trending. Tweet at your congressman or senators to increase funding and #EndAlz. Tell your story and get it published. Help a loved one who is going through it.

#WillFerrell trended on Twitter because people want to use #WillFerrell in a tweet, and because media outlets will get clicks if they talk about a Hollywood star. What if people wrote about how tragic Alzheimer's actually is, and about how there is no way to slow it down, treat it, or cure it? That is worth our anger. Alzheimer's is a serious disease, and it could affect every single one of us in our lifetime — whether by diagnosis or through the need to care for someone we love. Let’s focus our energy on solving that problem, and on not abandoning the millions of Americans affected by Alzheimer’s when the celebrities and the trendy hashtags leave the stage.
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