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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 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.

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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.

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