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Making Alzheimer’s Cry Uncle

Making Alzheimer’s Cry Uncle
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Winter 2022
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'A Christmas Story' actor Zack Ward honors his dad

Famously known for playing neighborhood bully Scut Farkus in the beloved film "A Christmas Story," Zack Ward and his family have recently faced their own notorious bully — Alzheimer's disease. Ward's father, Todd Ward, was diagnosed with the devastating disease in August 2020 at age 73.

To fight back, Ward partnered with the Alzheimer's Association to raise awareness of the disease and funds for Alzheimer's care, support and research. Last December, Ward signed autographs and took photos with fans at the "A Christmas Story" House & Museum in Ohio as a fundraiser for the Association.

This year, Ward reprised his classic role in the film sequel "A Christmas Story Christmas," which premiered on HBO Max in November.

Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's

Memory loss that disrupts daily life is one symptom of Alzheimer's or another dementia. If you notice any of the early signs, don't ignore them.

Learn the Signs
Below, Ward discusses his father’s struggle with Alzheimer's, the emotional impact on his family, and the advice he'd give to anyone facing the disease.

What was an early sign that something might be wrong with your dad?

I was directing my first feature film and my dad was helping to build some of the set. We were literally in the middle of a scene that I'm acting in, and the mic operator interrupted filming to tell me that my dad was standing 15 feet behind me in the middle of the shot. I walked over to him and he told me an odd story about how he was driving to a place he'd been many times but got lost, and then eventually found his way again. At the time, I thought it was odd but I was so busy making the film that I didn't have time to really focus on it. In retrospect, that was a sign.

In 2020, he got lost on the way to my house — which didn't make any sense because we remodeled my house together and he had been there hundreds of times. He also grew up in that area.

[After he was diagnosed] I looked back at all of the times I thought my dad was just being quirky or an oddball, and that wasn't it. Everything became very obvious about how Alzheimer's had been affecting him. It was no longer him just being silly or forgetful.

You convinced your dad to see a doctor after signs like these increased, and soon determined he needed to move to an assisted living community. What was that process like for you and your family?

It's like the frog in a pot of water. The heat turns on and the water starts to boil, and since it is gradual the frog doesn't know to jump out — and you need to move that frog out of the water to save its life. The faster you do that, the better it is for the frog. And my dad is the frog in this situation.

Care needs change as the disease progresses

There's no one-size-fits all formula for Alzheimer's care. Needs change at different stages of the disease, and each family's situation is unique.

We Can Help
My younger sister is amazing at coordinating things and actually works with seniors. We found a full-care facility for my dad where my sister lives in Oregon. So we packed up his entire life, decided what to keep and discard. It was a lot of work. It was painful. It was hard.

But the road trip with my dad and sister up to Oregon was awesome. We took him up to the woods, stayed at these cabins, made an adventure out of it and it was great.

Dealing with Alzheimer’s is hard for every family, and it has been especially emotional for you. What helps you and your family get through it?

I'm very fortunate that my entire family has a great sense of humor. And I think there's also a point where you have to forgive yourself for not being perfect. You surround yourself with family and good friends that can find the funny in tough situations. You do your best, you cry, you scream, because you really don’t have a lot of options in this situation.

What advice or encouragement do you have for other people who are trying to figure out how to help a parent who has Alzheimer's?

It can be terrifying to see a parent go through this, to watch them struggle with very private moments. You are used to seeing what they want to show you, their best behavior. And then you see them struggle to put their clothes on a hanger, see their mind going. It sucks. But you have to move forward and, as quickly as you can, help them get comfortable with what they need so they can be as happy as they can be. And anything you do to get in the way of that is selfish.

It's also really important to open your ears and your heart and listen to the person so you can figure out how to help them. Because Alzheimer's is like a freight train heading toward a cliff, and you want to make sure you [intervene] as quickly as you can for their benefit and your benefit.

So throw punches, get in the ring, fight it out and make it work. Be strong for the person.

ALZ: A magazine of the Alzheimer's Association

ALZ magazine shares inspiration and information about the fight to end Alzheimer’s — and offers tips on how to make your brain the focus of a healthy lifestyle. Want in on the next issue?Sign up here.

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