10/21/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waking up to the Realities of Alzheimer's Disease

This week, First Lady of California Maria Shriver and the Alzheimer's Association released "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Takes on Alzheimer's." As a friend of Maria's and a longtime Alzheimer advocate, I was proud to contribute an essay about my experiences with the disease to the report.

My mother, the actress Rita Hayworth, passed away in 1987 as a result of Alzheimer's disease. I'm all too aware of the devastation the disease leaves behind, its growing prevalence and the indisputable effect it has on families and our economy. But our nation as a whole seems to be blissfully unaware of the growing urgency of this problem. Why?

The only thing I can imagine is that we are afraid. And as women, as a nation, we can't afford to let our fear dictate ignorance. We must address Alzheimer's, how it will affect our lives and the lives of our children. We must address how we will care for the 10 million baby boomers who will develop the disease.

And it's women who are at the epicenter of the Alzheimer epidemic. The Alzheimer's Association Women and Alzheimer's Poll, unveiled for the first time in The Shriver Report, reveals that two-thirds of the people who have Alzheimer's -- 3.3 million -- are women. In addition, 60 percent of Alzheimer caregivers -- 6.7 million -- are also women.

It's time to harness the power and ability of women helping other women to start a dialogue around this disease. We've made great strides around treatment and prevention of other diseases, such as breast cancer, AIDS and heart disease. Why not Alzheimer's?

My own experience with the disease began when I was young girl. On visits home from boarding school, I would notice my mother's odd behavior. She would move her personal items from her bedroom to other closets around the house, including mine. She would throw all the food out of cupboards. She imagined that someone was trying to break into her home.

As the disease progressed, her confusion, disorientation and fear worsened. As her panic increased, my own helplessness and guilt became overwhelming. It was a terrible day when we stood together in front of a mirror, and she turned to me and asked, "Who are you?"

It wasn't until she had a complete breakdown that I could step in and take charge of my mother's life. I became her caregiver, and I worried about her all the time.

It was Maria Shiver's mother, Eunice Shriver, who first encouraged me to speak out about Alzheimer's disease. I was initially reluctant to share my painful personal experiences. She told me, "You can't let this disease continue to happen. You have to have the courage to make a difference."

I started working with the Alzheimer's Association in 1981. Together, we developed the Rita Hayworth Galas, a series of events held in major cities across the country to raise funds and awareness to fight Alzheimer's disease. On Tuesday, October 26 we'll host the 27th annual New York City Rita Hayworth Gala. This is my way of honoring my mother. This is my way of creating a dialogue.

The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Takes on Alzheimer's echoes other experiences like mine through personal essays and photographs that illuminate the effect of Alzheimer's on our nation. Contributors to the report include everyday Americans and well-known public figures, including Barbra Streisand, Terrell Owens, Soleil Moon Frye, ABC News Nightline anchor Terry Moran, CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen, former First Lady Laura Bush, President Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis, Alzheimer's Study Group Chairs Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Vice President Joseph Biden.

You can read their stories in the e-book version of the report. I wake up to the realities of Alzheimer's disease every morning. I wake up knowing my risk, and the risk that our nation's women face as a whole. Now I'm inviting other American women to wake up to the realities of Alzheimer's -- and to take action.