It has been predicted that 25 out of 100 Baby Boomers will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and their families will be forced to deal with the wrenching effects of the debilitating and progressive brain disorder.
The story of one such family is at the center of an emotional made-for-TV movie called Sacrifices of the Heart, which premieres at 9 tonight on the Hallmark Channel.
Veteran TV actress Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie) stars as Kate Weston, a big-city defense lawyer in her late 30s who is successful professionally but emotionally stunted in her personal life. She keeps her unbelievably patient boyfriend at arm's length and has virtually cut herself off from her own family back on the farm.
She hasn't even been home for a visit in more than two years.
But when Kate's father, played by Ken Howard (The White Shadow), begins showing early signs of Alzheimer's - forgetting things, getting lost on the way home - Kate's brother Ryan (Cyril O'Reilly) pleads with her to come back and help out with Dad.
That's not an easy thing for Kate, because she's had a strained relationship with her father for decades. She was deeply traumatized as a young girl when her mother committed suicide and Kate discovered the body. The terrible event helped shape her into the emotionally barren person she became as an adult.
And she has always held her father responsible for the suicide.
When she finally agrees to a visit, she's not surprised to find that nothing has changed between her and her father; they still don't connect. But the longer she's around, and the more her brother shares different perspectives on some formative childhood events - including their mother's suicide - the more her view of her father begins to soften.
Ultimately, she concludes that she's unfairly judged her dad all these years, and she determines to try to make up for lost time while she still can.
The story is a bona fide tear-jerker, and Gilbert is something less than impressive as the emotionally distant woman who is magically transformed into a caring, warm-hearted daughter. Neither side of her character's personality is particularly convincing.
Howard, on the other hand, turns in a solid performance as a proud, strong man who becomes increasingly confused and frustrated as a relentless affliction slowly tightens its grip on him. He denies that there's anything wrong with him - older people are just naturally forgetful at times, he contends - but it's evident in his eyes that he knows better.
According to Hallmark, Howard didn't have to do much research to play the part of the film's Alzheimer's victim. His own father died of the disease after suffering with it for years.
"I did all of my homework for this role years ago," Howard says in a network release. "My dad's faculties slowly slipped away from the beginnings of memory loss to absolute catatonia."
The script for the teleplay was written by Patti Davis, the daughter of Ronald Reagan, who was diagnosed with the disease after leaving the White House. By the time of his death in 2004, the once-rebellious Davis had found a way to connect with her father in a way she'd never been able to previously.
Sacrifices of the Heart is a three-tissue tale of a similarly troubled relationship that is finally healed only through understanding and forgiveness. But it's less about the changes wrought by a devastating disease than the transformation of an unlikable, self-absorbed woman into a reasonable facsimile of a human being.
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