Sargent Shriver Served an Important Role in Fight Against Alzheimer's Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Sargent Shriver was a change agent. Just read the first paragraph of his obituary in the New York Times: “R. Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law who became the founding director of the Peace Corps, the architect of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, a United States ambassador to France and the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1972, died on Tuesday in Bethesda, Md. He was 95.”


    But I’d suggest that Sargent Shriver also has been a change agent in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, he did have the disease, having been officially diagnosed in 2003, so he didn't serve in the type of public advocacy role that he had in the past. Yet I’d suggest that it’s because of his long battle with dementia that his daughter, former California First Lady Maria Shriver, has emerged as a strong, passionate and vocal advocate for Alzheimer’s.  Describing herself as “a child of Alzheimer’s” in a 2009 Huffington Post column, Maria continually has tried to educate both the general public and policymakers about the terrible consequences of the disease.

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    Based on her experiences with her father and her own children, Maria published a children’s book, “What’s Happening to Grandpa?” in 2004. She followed that up by creating of a segment of the highly regarded HBO series, "The Alzheimer’s Project," which aired in 2009. Her focus both times was based on what she learned from her father and she used that information to help young children and teens understand Alzheimer’s so that they would know that the disease was behind the distressing actions and words of a loved one.


    Maria brought attention to the disease again through creating a March on Alzheimer’s to help focus The Women’s Conference on issues related to this disease. She also used her Rolodex to invite some high-powered people to contribute to a report entitled, “The Shriver  Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s.”  Contributors included Princess Yasmin Aga Khan who is the daughter of legendary actress Rita Hayworth, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens whose grandmother has the disease, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews whose mother is afflicted, Maine Senator Susan Collins, and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. Maria also reached out to people whose names haven’t been regularly in the headlines to share their stories in the report.


    In March 2009, Maria shared her experiences during testimony at the United States Congress. "Sergeant Shriver was an idealistic, intelligent, optimistic public servant; sharp, witty, a walking encyclopedia. His mind was a beautifully tuned instrument that left people in awe” she told legislators. “That was then and today, he doesn't even know my name."  Thanks to her work as well as that of many others, Congress passed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which was signed into law by President Obama.


    So would Maria Shriver have been so committed to the Alzheimer’s cause if she hadn’t had a personal stake in the fight? Based on my own experience, I doubt it. I think that while we all have causes that we believe in (and often give money to), only challenges that tap our deep emotion and which have strong ties to either our own situation or that of a loved one make us join the race and take action for the long haul.  Therefore, Maria Shriver’s involvement in the Alzheimer’s battle comes down to her father, who taught her how to take action in a public arena and to do so in such a way as to have an impact. And that, my friends, is the power of a change agent.  May Mr. Shriver rest in peace and may we all embrace the template that he and Maria have given us for making a positive difference in our world.

Published On: January 19, 2011