Shriver raises Alzheimer’s awareness with new films

Maria Shriver made a personal appeal to bring attention to Alzheimer’s disease, speaking Tuesday morning at a breakfast at the Hay-Adams hotel that also promoted her new HBO film series on the subject.

Shriver spoke of having to reintroduce herself to her father, Robert Sargent Shriver, who has had Alzheimer’s disease since 2003 and no longer recognizes his daughter.

“I try not to focus on it,” she told The Hill of the emotional nature of speaking about her father’s condition in public. “I try to educate people and help them understand it and be a voice for my family and for my father.”

Sargent Shriver married Eunice Kennedy, was a special assistant to former President Lyndon Johnson and served as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1972.

Maria Shriver told those attending the breakfast, “I don’t mind having to reintroduce myself — at least I still have my dad.”

Shriver is scheduled to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Wednesday alongside former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — whose husband has long suffered from Alzheimer’s — and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). All are part of the Alzheimer Study Group, which is presenting a special report to Congress.

Shriver is dedicating her time in Washington toward educating people and highlighting the need to fight for a cure for the disease. On Monday night she attended a candlelight vigil at the Lincoln Memorial. On Wednesday night she’ll attend the National Alzheimer’s Gala at the National Building Museum, where she will present Sen. Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerLobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner Overnight Tech: Senate panel to vote on Dem FCC commissioner MORE (D-W.Va.) and wife, Sharon, with the Shriver Profiles in Dignity award.

“The emotional, spiritual and financial cost of this disease is mind boggling to the nation,” she said at the breakfast.

She told a story of sitting with her father in the backyard. She recalled him saying, “I hear water.” But Shriver didn’t hear water, she heard traffic, and proceeded to correct him.

But he was insistent: “I hear water; it makes me peaceful.”

Shriver caught on that if she wanted to be with him in the present, she’d have to stop correcting him and join him. “Yeah,” she told him finally. “It makes me peaceful too.”

She explained, “From that moment on, we never corrected my dad again.”

Shriver serves as executive producer for HBO’s The Alzheimer’s Project, which will include a series of films. The first 30-minute HBO documentary, premiering on May 10, centers on young children, ages 5 to 14, who are dealing with watching grandparents vanish into the thrall of the disease. It’s called “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?”

California’s first lady said HBO wanted her to come out of her role as a trained reporter and into that of a more detached filmmaker. “They didn’t want me to be a reporter,” she said. “They said I need to step aside.”

Shriver, the wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), appears in the first film to offer personal observations of dealing with the disease and advising children on how to cope. She does not, however, show up in the role of interviewer.

There weren’t many dry eyes in the breakfast parlor as the film aired — those in attendance included Shriver’s former NBC colleagues David Gregory, host of “Meet the Press,” and Norah O’Donnell, an NBC correspondent.

Also on hand was HBO’s Sheila Nevins, who heads the network’s documentary division and helped to ensure that the project would come to fruition. Nevins said she had a grandmother who had suffered with the disease. But that, she says, was not the main reason she wanted to make sure this film series happened.

“I think I was just astounded by the statistics and the fact that the media wasn’t paying attention to it,” Nevins said.

Shriver, in turn, said she is delighted to be working with Nevins. “She [usually] said she wasn’t interested in working with me or what I was pitching,” she said. “This is an honor for me to be part of the project, purely selfish [in that] I have wanted to work with Nevins for 20 years.”