For decades, Marcia Gay Harden has brought light to the human condition through countless roles on screen and stage, including Pollock (for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Mystic River, Into the Wild, and, most recently, the CBS drama Code Black. Now she’s bringing that same attention to her new partnership with Notes to Remember, a campaign designed to raise awareness of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s a partnership borne of Harden’s personal experiences.
“My mother suffers from Alzheimer’s,” Harden tells Yahoo Celebrity. “I was able to partner with Notes to Remember to bring awareness to the early stages of Alzheimer’s because it’s deeply important to me — the early signs are hard to distinguish from old age.”
Notes to Remember not only aims to help people identify the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but also helps them understand what to do during those early stages. The corresponding website helps to dispel myths and talks about facts while offering options and, in some cases, directing people to clinical trials that could help. As Harden puts it, “There are so many good things about the campaign. It’s important to be a part of it.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological illness that affects thinking, independence, and everyday activities, and it affects millions of people. But most concerning is how the early signs can be confused with the usual signs of aging, or even mistaken for other diseases and disorders.
“People can mix it up with dementia and other neurological disorders,” Harden says. “It’s progressive, and it progresses at different rates for different people. I think people are typically in denial about it because they’re afraid of it, so people think it’s normal aging. But it’s a very different thing. Repetitive forgetfulness about important details means people can’t live life in the same way, and it interferes with daily life.”
Harden also notes that another common misconception is that once the disease is identified, it’s easy to deal with. In fact, it’s something that affects the entire family. “It’s an enormous undertaking — it’s basically a family disease,” Harden explains. “If you’re alone, or if you’re with your partner, they can be inured to the signs and symptoms. But then the kids come home for a visit and haven’t seen their parents, they notice the differences because it’s more apparent. It’s important to have resources to help the family and the Alzheimer’s sufferer, that’s what the campaign is about.”
It’s a subject matter Harden knows all too well, as her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 72. (“We’ve been dealing with it for at least 10 years, but I noticed the signs earlier than that,” Harden says.) Harden is upbeat but realistic about dealing with how the disease has been affecting her mother. She’s currently working on a memoir about her experiences in helping her mom through Alzheimer’s, not just to help others who are dealing with the disease, but also to cement her mother’s legacy.
“I don’t want my mother’s legacy to be Alzheimer’s. I want her legacy to be the beauty of what she was before,” Harden states. “It’s been a blessing to work on the book for my mother and with my mother, because it’s about memory and calling back to different times in our childhood. She and I are incredible friends, and I remember that. She may not, but she remembers good feelings when I’m there. It’s about our travels, and I relate it to my mother’s flower arranging, so that’s what I’m writing about in the book. It’s wonderful. I love reading to her, and I love giving her that pleasure of reading to her.”
Harden, 57, also gives back to families who are dealing with Alzheimer’s and don’t know what to do. They talk with her about what they’re dealing with on a personal basis, and Harden discusses options and planning that they should look into, including how they should discuss things with their kids. She also advocates for estate planning and keeping an eye on the future, as things can deteriorate fast when a family member is dealing with the disease, and the family should be prepared as much as they can be every step of the way.
Many of Harden’s roles have dealt with personal struggles and tragedy, and Harden herself has been through difficulties, including having lost her nephew, niece, and former sister-in-law in an apartment fire in Queens, N.Y., back in 2003. But having dealt with so many emotions both on- and offscreen didn’t necessarily prepare her for her mother’s diagnosis.
“There’s no book about how to cope with it — it’s an individual journey for each person,” Harden shares. “I think I’m coping with it as a daughter, separate and outside of my work. It’s a daughter’s journey. By being an actress, I have the blessing of being able to use my name and celebrity recognition to hopefully make a change and be a part of eradicating this disease.
“This affects 5.4 million people,” she continues. “And then when you add family and caregivers, the number is larger — that’s a lot of people, and it’s supposed to double and triple in the next few years. The potential is devastating, so I’m grateful to the researchers and all the work being done.”
So how can people manage when going through difficult times like she has? Says Harden, “I’ll answer through my mother: Be in the moment. You may not be able to deal with the past or understand the future, but in the moment you’re present. So be in the moment with incredible compassion.”
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