Marcia Gay Harden is on a mission. After her mother Beverly was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the actress learned early awareness of symptoms was vital. Now, Harden has partnered with Notes to Remember and Biogen to imbue what she calls "gentle courage" in those facing the reality that a loved one might need help.
"She had her own feeling," the Oscar-winner told Zimbio during a recent conversation. "She would say to me, 'Something is wrong. I'm forgetting things. I don't want it to be Alzheimer's. I'm afraid.' I would think, 'No it's not.'"
Symptoms Beverly's family assumed were the natural progression of old age were actually the product of a serious, common neurodegenerative disease.
"We'd seen signs and symptoms, but we didn't have the education or the bravery to identify," Harden remembered. "I feel like it's a time that a lot of people might make excuses. Normal forgetfulness, distraction, old age...it was a couple years after that that she got diagnosed."
The news was all the more unexpected because her family had no genetic history of the disease. Beverly was the first in the family to be officially diagnosed.
"[It was] shocking because my mom is the poster girl for all the things they say you should do to alleviate the possibility of Alzheimer's," Harden recalled. "Every single one, my mom lived that way: exercise, mental health, nurturing, being surrounded by people. Alzheimer's and neurological decline is shocking and painful for any family."
It wasn't until Harden and her mom took off on an international trip that the Code Black star realized Beverly's forgetfulness was far from normal.
"We would travel together and she would forget her passport often," she said. "I sort of clocked and noted that that was going on with her. She would forget where she put something right after she put it there. This was a serious personal issue for her. I said, 'Give me the passport, I'll take care of it.' But she wanted to do it herself. It was a revelation for me."
Alzheimer's Disease affects more than 3 million people per year, typically characterized by memory loss and confusion. At the first sign of symptoms, a quick, easy PET scan can reveal the disease, enabling families to prepare and prevent. For Harden, preparation is key.
"I want people to have early awareness of the signs and symptoms so that they can have that personal dialog. For me," she said, "it was very personal. It affects the whole family. People want to be cohesive with their family members so they can navigate the coming years with that person. With early awareness, that person can be their own advocate. They can relieve that emotional burden by being active in the decision-making."
While the realization that someone close may be ill is a harrowing one, Harden knows first-hand that the sooner the diagnosis, the better.
"People are beginning to notice the early signs, and in doing so, they give themselves the opportunity to be a part of shaping their future, to be a part of a hopeful future," Harden said. "A solution, eradication of the disease. That's my prayer for people affected, is that they can move forward with a gentle courage."