From left to right: Tony Marshall (Garry's dad), Ronny Marshall (Garry's middle sister), Marjorie (Garry's mom), Penny (Garry's younger sister), and Garry
More than 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease and more than 15 million others provide unpaid care to help them, according to the Alzheimer's Association. In honor of November being Alzheimer's Disease Awarness Month, we asked Hollywood director and actor Garry Marshall and his daughter Lori to talk about their personal experience with the illness.
Lori: Sometimes we write columns about funny things, but today I want to discuss a serious subject.
Garry: Does that mean I can’t make a joke?
Lori: Of course you can make a joke when necessary. I learned a long time ago, asking you to suppress your humor is both unnecessary and futile.
Garry: Pain plus time equals humor. That’s what I always say. Bring on the serious subject.
Lori: I learned today that the Alzheimer’s Association has scheduled more than 600 walks in 2012 to raise money and awareness for the disease.
Garry: That’s a lot of walking.
Lori: One in eight older Americans have the disease—that’s 5.4 million people.
Garry: Including one who was in our family. My mother Marjorie Ward Marshall had Alzheimer’s and died in 1983.
Lori: When I heard about the walks it reminded me what a difficult time our family had when she was diagnosed with the disease.
Garry: Part of the reason was not just her Alzheimer’s, but the fact that we really didn’t know what it was called back then. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time when people didn’t even know the word “Alzheimer’s disease” or what it meant.
Lori: How was your mom diagnosed?
Garry: One day we went to pick her up at the airport from New York and we found her reclining on the baggage carousel, spinning around with the pieces of luggage. We didn’t have the clarity then to say, “There’s my mom and her Alzheimer’s is acting up.” We just had to get her off the carousel and calm her down. We didn’t know she had a disease, we just thought she had run-of-the-mill dementia. It was frustrating and confusing for all of us.
Lori: How did you figure out what was wrong?
Garry: We took her to different doctors and finally one of them had experience with the disease and told us it had a name: Alzheimer’s disease. The flip side of that was hearing my mother had a disease and then being told we couldn’t do anything to stop it. She could remember the names of the tap dancers she taught in the 1940s, but when we held up something like a pencil, she didn’t know what it was called. Her memory and the way it disappeared was tragic.
Lori: You are a “fix-it person” and that must have made you mad. How did you cope?
Garry: I admit I do like to look for ways to solve my own problems and other people’s too. But with my mom there was nothing we could do, but keep her comfortable. I gathered a lot of support from my two sisters, Penny and Ronny, and the rest of my family. Hugging helps.
Lori: I know you couldn’t stop the progression of the disease, but could you do anything to make your mom happier as the disease grew worse?
Garry: All of her life she was a tap dancing teacher and she liked to play the piano. So we tried to look for outlets to let her still perform, even with her Alzheimer’s. For example, she appeared in an episode of Laverne & Shirley, which I produced and my sister Penny starred in. And we also helped her put on tap dancing shows at assisted living facilities. Her grandkids performed, even you.
Lori: Yes. Reluctantly. I remember how the crepe paper dress itched, but she still made us laugh. When she couldn’t remember her own grandchildren’s names she would call out, “Hey Zelda!” “Hey Eloise!” “Hey you, Zachery All! Get in a line and let’s start on the count of three.”
Garry: She still had joy at the end, because she could sit at a piano and belt out a tune from memory. That part of her mind still worked. She also liked to make scrapbooks.
Lori: Like you and I do. It’s a dying art form.
Garry: Yes. But when she was scrapbooking near the end, she ran out of tape, and we didn’t know it. She started asking us for stamps and we thought she was writing letters to people. It turns out that she was pasting the pictures into the scrapbooks using Band-Aids and postage stamps. It is an odd little scrapbook, but we still treasure it.
Lori: It must have been hard watching her slip away.
Garry: What was odd is that when my mother got sick, Penny was so famous as the star of Laverne & Shirley. One day we were visiting her at the hospital, and Penny started to cry at mom’s bedside because our mother didn’t recognize her as her daughter any more. Two nurses stood in the back of the room, and I heard one of them whisper, “Oh, look. Laverne is crying.” It was sad and funny at the same time.
Lori: How did your dad handle it?
Garry: She forgot a lot of things, but not the fact that she disliked my dad. She couldn’t remember his name, but she would point to him and say, “That guy I don’t like so much.” We would say, “Ma, that’s your husband!” And she would say, “Really? I don’t like him one bit.”
Lori: How did your dad react to that?
Garry: “Waiter, I’ll have another martini, please.”
Lori: Your dad lived about 20 years longer than your mom?
Garry: Yes. She lived to be 73 and he died at 92, still with a very sharp mind. You just never know how you are going to end up. The last thing my mom said to me was, “Ah, what a mess this is, huh?” And she was right. It was. All I could do was hug her. I remembered reading that Dustin Hoffman was at his own mother’s bedside and he said, “Mom, tug my finger, if you can hear me.” But she didn’t tug back. I felt that same disappointment when my mom slipped into a coma and died six months later.
Lori: There are some studies that say Alzheimer’s is hereditary. Do you and your sisters ever worry about it?
Garry: Sometimes, and that is why I do the Jumble scrabble puzzle in The Los Angeles Times every morning with your mother, and I have a tutor to teach me juggling. They say learning new things with your mind and your hands is helpful to keeping your mind alert.
Lori: You have a juggling tutor?
Garry: Yes. Some people do yoga to stay limber. I juggle.
To find out more information about Alzheimer's disease, the walks and to get support, visit the Alzheimer's Association web site.
Garry Marshall has directed and produced dozens of hit television shows and movies including Happy Days, The Odd Couple, Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries and Beaches. He lives in California with his wife Barbara. They have three children and six grandchildren. Lori Marshall is a writer who lives in Northern California with her twin daughters.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.