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'The Alzheimer's Project'

TELEVISION REVIEW

HBO's ambitious four-part documentary covers the scientific and personal aspects of the debilitating disease with heart-wrenching honesty and clarity.

May 08, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

"The Alzheimer's Project" is an ambitious, disturbing, emotionally fraught and carefully optimistic four-part documentary exploring virtually every angle of Alzheimer's disease that can be explored on television. Interviewed and filmed by the same team that produced HBO's "Addiction" project, patients and their families, scientists and doctors, caregivers and advocates are all given an opportunity to speak, often with heartbreaking details of their lives and the impact Alzheimer's has had on them.

That this will resonate with millions of viewers is indisputable -- as many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and as the baby boomers age, some predict that number could more than double. That much of the documentary is difficult to watch is equally so, particularly the first part, which debuts on Sunday.

In "The Memory Loss Tapes," we meet seven people in various stages of the disease. Though 87-year-old Bessie Knapmiller is becoming increasingly forgetful, she is still feisty and active. Yolanda Santamartino, 75, is in a far darker place. Her closest friend in the resident facility in which she lives is her own reflection -- whom she berates for never coming to visit. Plagued by visions of snakes, surrounded by other similarly beset patients, she declares, in a rare moment of clarity, that "this is no life."

So while it's heart-wrenching, it's not surprising that at 63, Joe Potocny, who was diagnosed two years ago, plans to kill himself when he feels he has become someone he no longer recognizes. In one scene, he shows his wife the box which he has chosen to contain his ashes.

For those who have only a theoretical understanding of the illness, "The Memory Loss Tapes" provides a spine-straightening revelation. For those who have lost someone, either physically or mentally, to Alzheimer's or dementia, it may be excruciating to watch.

Certainly there are moments of beauty and grace: Once a painter, Josephine Mickow, 77, composes visual vignettes that her daughter photographs in what may be their final form of real communication; endlessly cheerful, Woody Geist, 78, does not remember his wife yet he can still sing all the old songs.

But there is no Michael J. Fox of Alzheimer's, no Christopher Reeve to showcase the conquering human spirit. While even the most tragic physical limitations can leave a person essentially intact, Alzheimer's strips away precisely what makes a human body a person, until there is nothing left but an empty outline where your mother or brother once was.

In "Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?," which airs on Monday, Maria Shriver, one of the more sugar-coating-averse individuals of our time, gets straight to the point: How does one handle having a parent or grandparent who is no longer the person they were? Her own father, the indomitable Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed years ago and the first lady of California long ago dedicated herself to raising awareness of the disease, including serving as executive producer of "The Alzheimer's Project."

In this segment, children express their sense of loss, their guilt over not wanting to visit a vacant and belligerent grandparent, and the stalwart optimism in believing that somehow just their presence will help. Frankly, if this doesn't send everyone racing for a checkbook and a list of Alzheimer's research projects, nothing will.

It is a relief then to learn that many scientists believe they are very close to understanding what causes the disease. The two-part "Momentum in Science," which begins Monday night as well, provides a near-perfect balance of scientific explanation and narrative accessibility -- even a non-scientifically inclined television critic can follow the conversation.

The final installment is "Caregivers," and here are the stories of hope and transcendence, here is the heartbreaking and at times nearly impossible task that is being undertaken by ordinary people each and every day.

As anyone who has been touched by this disease knows, it is hard to let a loved one go, even when they want to go and even when they have been gone for a long, long time.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The Alzheimer's Project'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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