Skip to content

Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Font Size

Olympia Dukakis: Health Activist

From caring for a mother diagnosed with Alzheimer's to working with polio patients, the award-winning actress takes her own health and the health of others seriously.
WebMD the Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You're a health activist. What sparked your interest?

My mother suffered from Alzheimer's. And I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in the early 1990s. It's a message to all women that ... it's not an infirmity you have to endure. Something can be done.

Recommended Related to Alzheimer's

NFL Star Terrell Owens Tackles Alzheimer's Disease

Every time NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens steps onto the football field, his mind turns to the woman he credits with getting him there: his grandmother. She took him in when he was a young boy and raised him. What breaks his heart is that she will never know how far he's come. Alice Black was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 14 years ago, during Owens' first NFL season. Now, she no longer knows her grandson. "The disease has robbed her of her memories," says Owens, who plays for the Cincinnati...

Read the NFL Star Terrell Owens Tackles Alzheimer's Disease article > >

Did caring for your mother inspire you to do your new film, Away From Her?

As insightful as the movie is about Alzheimer's, it's about the love that a man is capable of -- what a husband is able to do in terms of making sure that his wife has the best quality of life left.

In the film, Julie Christie's character fails to recognize her husband. Did this happen with you and your mother?

Yes ... very painful. I had the same experience that he had. Then there's the moment when the light comes through for a brief period of time ... after several years of not knowing me, my mother knew me when I walked in.

How long did the recognition last?

About an hour or so. I think it was her goodbye, because two weeks after that she passed.

Is the movie an accurate portrayal of Alzheimer's?

Unlike this character, when my mother realized she was losing it, she did not want to be taken anywhere ... I promised her I wouldn't [put her in a hospital] ... but we reached a point where we weren't able to take care of her physically. I had tried with nurses around the clock, but she screamed and yelled at them and accused them of stealing from her. She was a terror. That's what happens with Alzheimer's.

If you were recovering in a hospital and you could have anyone, from any era, recovering next to you, who would it be?

A poet. I once was in the hospital with an English teacher and she recited poetry. That's what I'm remembering --how wonderful she was.

Do you have a personal health philosophy?

I do everything I can to stay strong and flexible.

What quality do you most desire in a doctor?

Skill, experience, and knowledge -- I want them to know what they're doing. They don't even have to be nice guys, and they don't have to have a bedside manner. They just have to know what they're talking about. They have to pay attention.

You decided to be a physical therapist after college. Why?

I wanted to go back to school, and it was the best way I knew to make money given the kind of studying I liked. I liked the sciences. So I went out and did four polio epidemics. I was in Marmet, W.Va. I was down in Dallas, Texas. I was up in Duluth, Minn. And then the worst one was in Boston in 1955.

Today on WebMD

Remember your finger
When it’s more than just forgetfulness.
senior man with serious expression
Which kinds are treatable?
senior man
Common symptoms to look for.
mri scan of human brain
Can drinking red wine reverse the disease?
senior man
daughter and father
Making Diagnosis
Colored mri of brain
Close up of elderly couple holding hands
senior woman with lost expression
Woman comforting ailing mother
Alzheimers Dementia