Known as an actor (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “Girls”) and film producer (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), Rita Wilson is also an accomplished songwriter with three albums to date. Her latest album, “Bigger Picture,” is about “taking stock of who you are.” We sat down to talk with Rita about her family’s journey when faced with her mother’s Alzheimer’s.
Rita, how has Alzheimer’s disease touched your life?
My mother had Alzheimer’s. Her name was Dorothy and she was a vibrant soul.
It was very difficult to see such a lively, funny person start losing her faculties, getting angry for no reason, or thinking that someone was ‘out to get her’; all of the things that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's when the brain starts to go.
Near the end of her life, when she was bedridden and couldn't speak anymore, with our whole family surrounding her, our priest came to visit. I said to him, "Why is God doing this? Why does God keep her here? Why doesn't he take her?"
His answer was simple: "She's still teaching you."
And he was right; we were learning every day. We learned how to care for Mom through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease and then how to cope near the end of her life. My mom taught us so many important lessons.
Tell us about your family’s experience caring for your mom.
Fortunately, my mom lived really close to me, so my brother, sister and I could see her often. She also had a full-time caregiver.
Caregivers are just unbelievable. I am in awe of their ability to do their job and care for someone with Alzheimer's and still make the person with the disease feel happy. They make them feel like they're still living their lives fully, and because of that, caregivers are amazing angels.
You recently released a new album. How is your music and the music you love rooted in your own memories?
Every occasion has a song connected to it! The first dance at Tom and my wedding was “True Love Ways” by Elvis Costello.
I also vividly remember my son's kindergarten class performing “What A Wonderful World” with both music and sign language. To see such small children so pure in their expression was emotional!
When my dad died, my family hired a Bulgarian folk singer to sing at his funeral accompanied by a gaida, which is akin to a bagpipe. No matter what culture you come from, music is embedded in your life and all your experiences.
Do you associate any particular songs or types of music with your mother?
Mom loved her Greek music and would always translate the mournful lyrics to me. But she also loved The Beatles!
She would listen to the radio and say, in her Greek accent, “That song’s going to be a hit!” She was always right. She had a good ear.
You've said that your music is the most honest way to express yourself and bare your soul. How do you approach this openness with each new record?
“Bigger Picture” is a musical scrapbook. So many fragments of memories, experiences — both joyful and painful — that make up a collection of experiences in my life. The songs are so intimate. I hope that they resonate with other people going through both good and difficult times.
Every time I write a song I consider it a minor miracle. You walk into a room with nothing and walk out with something. Where did it come from? How did it happen? It’s always about telling a story. I want to hear them and I want to tell them.
What is something you learned during your Alzheimer’s journey?
If someone you love is dealing with an Alzheimer's diagnosis, it teaches you enormous compassion. The person with the disease may feel like he or she is losing everything, and there is nothing that you can say. The person isn’t going to get up the next morning and discover that this disease is gone, like a cold that goes away overnight.
Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease, and it is not a disease that progresses with a lot of happiness attached to it. It's very tough, it's painful ... and it teaches great compassion for others. Despite the way I learned it, it’s another lesson I am glad to have had.
Sometimes the heavier moments of the Alzheimer’s journey are interspersed with a touch of humor. Can you recall one of the lighter moments of your mom’s journey with the disease?
Absolutely. Our last full conversation went like this:
"Hey Mom, how are you?"
In her Greek accent: "I am good."
"Well, that's great, Mom. Do you know who I am?"
"Of course, you're my daughter."
"That's right. Which daughter am I?"
Because I have a sister, she couldn't answer.
"Well, it's me, Mom. It's Rita.”
"You're too good-looking to be Rita."
I think I'm taking that as a compliment.
About Rita Wilson: Rita released her third album, Bigger Picture, on September 27. The actress and singer-songwriter has joined forces with some extraordinary musical collaborators and crafted a revelatory set of songs allowing her to tell stories — including her own — in entirely new ways. Rita’s tour included her debut at Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry on October 23. Learn more about “Bigger Picture” here.
Music and Alzheimer’s