In 1987, actress Olympia Dukakis won an Oscar for playing the sardonic Rose Castorini, mother to Cher’s character, in the classic film “Moonstruck.” In reality, Olympia’s relationship with her own mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease, was filled with contradictions, complications and, ultimately, a lot of love. We spoke with Olympia about her advice for families grappling with Alzheimer’s and about “Olympia,” a film which shows how revisiting the past can help shape the present.
Olympia, what was life like growing up with your mom?
My mother was a very strong woman, the disciplinarian in my family, and she certainly had her ideas about how a “good Greek girl” should behave. At the same time, she was also really funny: the life of the party.
I knew my mother loved me, but I don’t remember her ever telling me so. When I decided to become a fencer [Dukakis was a champion fencer in high school] and we didn’t have enough money to buy a uniform, she went to the store, saw how the uniform was sewn, came home and made me one from scratch. That was her way of showing me how she felt.
Your mother died of Alzheimer’s. What were some of the signs or symptoms of the disease she displayed?
It took my family a long time to realize that something was wrong. My brother and I were in complete denial; we loved our mother so much and we didn’t want to admit that her health was deteriorating.
It started with her forgetting things, and that only worsened. Then she started saying outrageous, sometimes hurtful things. One time she turned to my brother and said: “You’re not my son. I never gave birth to you.” Another time, my husband Louie and I were in the kitchen, and in came my mom: “What are we going to do about my mind?” She was aware that something was happening to her. A moment later she gathered herself and said: “Why am I talking to you? There’s nothing you can do about it.” And walked away.
Eventually she couldn’t recognize her immediate family and she started thinking that people from her past were alive, especially her parents. She always asked where they were.
Having lived through those experiences with your mom, what advice would you give to others who are dealing with similar situations?
I have a lot of advice to give because my family did everything wrong. I thought that I could handle my mother’s situation by myself, but that is impossible. I was in such denial. I wasn’t educated about the disease, so I didn’t understand how bad things could get.
When my brother and I started looking for assisted living facilities, we chose something that looked good on paper rather than educating ourselves so we could make an informed decision. It was only when my mother got sick with pneumonia that we realized that the facility didn’t have nursing care, so we had to move her to a hospital, which was further away from where we lived. We did the same thing with her doctor. Instead of finding a doctor who really understood Alzheimer’s disease, we went with our first recommendation. Every misstep created more confusion, pain and guilt.
There is nothing easy about Alzheimer’s disease for anyone involved. When you are with your loved one, be gentle. Agree with them. Love them. Don’t try and talk them out of their reality. Try to find other ways to communicate with them, whether it’s singing or looking at old photo albums — whatever works best for you. Most of all, educate yourself about the disease so that you are prepared for what is coming.
You’ve had professional projects that highlight Alzheimer’s, such as the films “Away from Her” and the upcoming “Not to Forget.” How have you brought your personal experiences with the disease to your professional life?
When I was in the midst of everything with my mother, I was on autopilot. There was no time to think or feel too much, especially when I was constantly reacting to something new.
After she passed away in 1994, I realized that I had not really dealt with everything I had experienced during the course of her disease. When I started filming “Away from Her,” it brought so many emotions back to the surface. It was almost like therapy for me. Processing all of this while working with a director and other actors allowed me to understand the characters and the situations in a way that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
“Olympia” includes a poignant visit to Greece. What about that visit was most memorable and important to you as your mother’s daughter?
My interaction with four older women in Lesbos was definitely the most poignant part of my trip there. Here were four women dressed in black sitting on a bench together. They said they were “filenades” (girlfriends). They grew up together, lived next to each other, raised their children together and spent their entire life as friends.
As I spoke to them, I got so emotional. I realized that if my parents hadn’t left Greece, I could have been one of those women. Their friendship seemed so deep and pure that part of me felt longing and envy. Yet at the same time, another part of me felt deep gratitude toward my parents. If they hadn’t left Greece, I wouldn’t have had the kind of life and career that I ended up having.
Do you have a particularly vivid or favorite memory of your mother?
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my favorite aunt was having a party and my parents promised me that I could go with them. I fell asleep before they left, and they decided that they didn’t want to wake me up. At some point in the evening, I woke up, got dressed and walked to my aunt’s house. I remember opening the door and seeing my mother and her sister with glasses of ouzo on their heads dancing as everyone else cheered and clapped. I’ll never forget that image! Two 4’11” women with ouzo on their heads dancing the night away. It still makes me giggle today.
A later memory I have was when my mother was still living with me. She started losing her appetite and began losing a lot of weight. My son, a great cook, was upset that his yia yia (grandma) wasn’t eating, so he started cooking for her. They would get into arguments as he would try and convince her to eat. During one of these debates, she turned to me and said, in Greek: “He’s very smart. If he wants to go into business, give him some money.”
What lessons have you taken away from your mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s?
I learned to not take things personally. As you see your loved one slipping away from you, it’s a lesson of letting go. Realize that you don’t have any control of what your loved one is going through, but you do have control on how you deal with the situation.
It is so important to educate yourself about Alzheimer’s disease. Ask questions, and know you aren’t alone. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association and support groups are there to help steer you in the right direction and give you the help you need as a caregiver or loved one of someone with the disease.
And whatever you do, don’t lose your sense of humor. Funnily enough, it was my mother who kept reminding me that there is so much humor in this part of life.
Directed by Harry Mavromichalis, the documentary “Olympia” will have a national live-streaming premiere on July 9 and July 10. Learn more about how you can watch the film.
Since the publication of this blog, on May 1, 2021, Olympia Dukakis passed away. We are so thankful to her for sharing her mom's story and for being a part of the fight to end Alzheimer's.
About: A long-respected presence on both the stage and screen, Alzheimer’s Association Celebrity Champion Olympia Dukakis started her career in theater, winning an Obie Award in 1963. She later moved to film acting, appearing in such films as “Moonstruck” and “Steel Magnolias” and, most recently, the Netflix series “Tales of the City.” She was married to actor Louis Zorich from 1962 until his passing in 2018, and they had three children: Christina, Peter and Stefan.