She is the perfect blend of the two characters she created in her best-selling crime novels: smart and exacting like Dr. Maura Isles, and tough and uncompromising like Detective Jane Rizzoli. Tess Gerritsen, the medically-trained author behind the top-rated "girl-buddy" crime drama, Rizzoli & Isles on TNT, is focused on a real-world mystery she is hoping to help solve: Alzheimer's disease.
When I spoke to Tess, it is not the fourth season premiere of Rizzoli & Isles or her latest novel, Last to Die, which is on her mind. It is the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and her new philanthropic campaign, Tess Gerritsen's War on Alzheimer's, which ends on July 23. Gerritsen was one of the 24 million Sandwich Generation caregivers -- caring for children, balancing a career and caring for a father with Alzheimer's disease whom she lost in 2003.
Her campaign embraces society's love of pop culture with her passion to help solve one of society's looming aging and health issues: finding a cure for a disease which robs the victims of their personalities and joys in life. The twist in this do-good campaign is Gerritsen is asking for $5 donations in exchange for a chance to win prizes including naming one of the characters in the new Rizzoli and Isles medical and crime thriller novel she is writing to be published next year. She has pledged to match all donations up to $25,000 of which 100 percent of the funds raised will benefit the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California -- one of the largest independent nonprofit organizations for biomedical research with a leading four-star rating from Charity Navigator.
It was in the early '90s that Gerritsen felt the full-blown drama of Alzheimer's in her family. Her father was working for a large defense contractor in San Diego, California but was experiencing trouble with math and numbers that had been his forte throughout his career. Simultaneously, he spent nights as a popular chef in a family-run restaurant which Gerritsen explains as the "typical Chinese immigrant mentality of working two jobs to care for your family." When his performance in his daytime defense job became unmanageable, he was let go and focused on his passion for cooking.
"My dad's cooking was magic in the kitchen," remembers Gerritsen. "But eventually over the years his personality changed and his ability to remember recipes failed. He became paranoid and thought people were stealing from him when often he was just misplacing things."
He was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in his mid 60s, which Gerritsen says "is so young" given the statistics for AD. According to the Alzheimer's Association, early on-set or younger on-set Alzheimer's accounts for approximately 5 percent of all Alzheimer's patients -- about 200,000 Americans who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s -- whereas one in every two Americans will develop dementia after age 85.
Gerritsen, who resides with her husband and children in Maine, became one of the 8 million long-distance caregivers for her divorced dad yet she credits her aunt, her father's sister, with managing his daily care. Both women consoled each other as the father and brother they loved eventually became unable to speak and lost many of the joys in life, such as cooking and even eating.
"It really hit me when I lost my dad how impactful this disease can be," states Gerritsen. "As I learned more -- including one in every three seniors will die with Alzheimer's disease -- I decided we need to solve the mystery of treating this disease before it overtakes us."
Gerritsen is particularly troubled by the lack of funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where annual budgets authorized by Congress for Alzheimer's research and programs is less than one-tenth of the spending on other health issues such as heart disease, cancer and AIDS. Yet Alzheimer's disease now ranks #6 among diseases on the top 10 list of causes of death in the U.S. and is the only disease on the list which cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.
"Alzheimer's is literally killing us and the only way to fight this 'crime' is through a groundswell of people who continue to raise their voices and funds to ensure it gets the attention it deserves," says Gerritsen with the passion evident in her voice.
Gerritsen created her famous characters, Rizzoli and Isles, as two women with very different backgrounds and lifestyles who work together toward a common goal -- solving crime. She believes pop culture has a place in capturing attention for social causes and her Alzheimer's campaign is her contribution to have different people work together to help eradicate a known killer.
Join Tess Gerrisen's campaign before the deadline of July 23.
Sherri Snelling's book, A Cast of Caregivers, blends pop culture with caregiving resource information and tips on self-care.