Some say laughter is the best medicine. Or as iconic comedian/actor/filmmaker Charlie Chaplin put it, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
But for the more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease and the 17 million more family members who take on the care for them, Alzheimer’s is no laughing matter. Unless you ask comedian/actor Seth Rogen and his actress/screenwriter wife, Lauren Miller, who are wasting no time when it comes to fighting this disease.
Rogen and Miller, both 34 and Millennials, know the devastating downside of having a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They also know how to harness humor and their thirtysomething friends to raise awareness and funds for a disease that most Millennials know little about.
Four years ago, the couple founded Hilarity for Charity (HFC), a charitable organization dedicated to engaging Millennials in the Alzheimer’s fight. “No one my age was talking about it [Alzheimer’s]. People think it’s a curable disease!” Rogen has said in past interviews.
For Seth Rogen, Comedy and Drama Collide
Rogen is best known for his funnyman roles in movies such as Knocked Up and Neighbors as well as a dramatic turn playing Steve Wozniak in the Steve Jobs biopic. He met Miller in 2004 when they were 22. Miller had already been witnessing the impact of Alzheimer’s. Her maternal grandparents both suffered from the disease. Her grandfather was diagnosed when Miller was 12 and died shortly after and she lost her grandmother to the disease when Miller was in high school.
Three years into their courtship, Miller and Rogen learned that her mother, Adele, had early-onset Alzheimer’s. She was only 55. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early-onset diagnosis of the disease is defined as affecting those under 65 and only 250,000 people represent that segment of Alzheimer’s patients (5 percent).
The couple recognized that Alzheimer’s might one day be the health epidemic many Millennials face. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, by 2050, a projected 13.8 million Americans over age 65 will have Alzheimer’s, when both Rogen and Miller will be 68.
[Alzheimer's ] is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. that has no cure or treatments to slow or prevent it.
Money for the Cause
Since its inception, Hilarity for Charity has raised more than $5 million for Alzheimer’s Association research and advocacy efforts as well as other programs. By gathering their funnier friends in Hollywood, such as Kevin Hart, Mindy Kaling and James Franco, the couple started their foundation with an event based around stand-up comedy and musical performances.
Now in its fifth year, the annual HFC Variety Shows, held in New York City and that had a Halloween-themed event on Oct. 15 headlined by Snoop Dog in Los Angeles, taught younger generations to appreciate a serious disease through entertainment and laughter.
Expanding their reach, HFC launched its college campus grassroots program, HFC U (Hilarity for Charity University) that encourages students to throw their own events. Rogen and Miller have also collaborated with Home Instead, a national in-home care provider, on a grant program that has given a respite break to family caregivers. The program has provided families with more than 86,000 hours of in-home care to date. Other activities, such as Google Hangouts, are all part of Rogen and Miller’s rallying cry to younger people to “Kick Alz in the Ballz.”
Not Just Fun and Games
While the couple has focused their awareness efforts on humor to engage other Millennials, they also take on serious roles as ambassadors and advocates for Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2014, Rogen testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services to appeal to government to provide more funds for Alzheimer’s research. To date, the federal government has allocated between six and 10 times more funds for cancer research ($5 billion annually) and HIV/AIDS ($3 billion) than Alzheimer’s (currently $650 million), according to the National Institutes of Health.
Rogen and Miller are seriously concerned about this lack of attention from government officials, since Alzheimer’s is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. with no cure or treatments to slow or prevent it.
As Rogen told Time magazine in 2015, “From my perspective, it’s more about changing the conversation so that government actually does something about it. I think government is reactive to people’s desires as opposed to leading the way for people’s best interest.”
The couple have also put their creative talents into a documentary, This Is Alzheimer’s. One of those with Alzheimer’s featured in the film is the now 38-year-old Ken Dodson. He was diagnosed at 30 and is one of the rare Millennials with a disease most believe only affects “old people.”
Dodson’s wife, Nikki, told a local TV station in Detroit, where the couple lives, that for almost two years, her young husband was misdiagnosed as having depression. But they knew the mistakes Ken was making at work and his inability to find his way home from a favorite store were not a result of depression. Something else had to be wrong. After several doctor visits and finally an MRI, the conclusion was Dodson had early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Patients Kept in the Dark
Miller points out that a recent Alzheimer’s Association study frighteningly showed that 55 percent of doctors did not tell their patients with Alzheimer’s of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, since there is no treatment or cure. “This is a huge issue,” Miller said.
Like Miller’s mother, Dodson also had a diagnosis of early-onset form of the disease. A private person, Dodson wasn’t sure he wanted to share his devastating diagnosis on film but realized his silence around early-onset Alzheimer’s would not help others nor his three young children.
Miller relates to the stigma around Alzheimer’s — her mother urged the young couple not to tell anyone about her Alzheimer’s.
A 2016 survey conducted in the UK among people over age 50 showed that four in 10 feared getting dementia (43 percent). That was more than those who feared getting a cancer diagnosis (30 percent) or suffering a stroke (12 percent). For Miller the fear of Alzheimer’s is all too real.
A Love Story for the Age of Alzheimer’s
She talked to USA Today in November of 2015 during National Caregiving Month about her mother’s inability to have any relationship with her daughter. “At this point she can’t respond; she’s just there,” Miller said. “I think a lot of people do not understand what that truly means — to lose your memory.”
Rogen has talked about how 30 years ago cancer was something people were afraid to discuss. It was only mentioned in whispers and wasn’t portrayed on TV or film until the popular 1970 movie Love Story made cancer relevant for a younger (boomer) generation. He and Miller want to avoid something similar with Alzheimer’s.
But Miller told TIME that increasing Alzheimer’s awareness for her generation is “an uphill battle.” She notes that they don’t have success stories of people who have been cured of Alzheimer’s that they can use. For Rogen and her, it’s about “showing the caregivers … that they can use their voices, and if they do they’ll be heard, and change will come.”