Alzheimer’s Documentary About Brewster’s Greg O’Brien Candidly Chronicles ‘Death in Slow-Motion’

By: Bronwen Walsh

Topics: Health

Greg O’Brien in 2015. COURTESY PHOTO

BREWSTER – Lifelong journalist Greg O’Brien, 72, has dedicated his “golden years” to writing about living with Alzheimer’s.

Husband, father of three, and the former editor and publisher of The Cape Codder, O’Brien was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s 12 years ago, at age 59.
He calls the disease a quiet killer that attacks the mind from the inside-out until darkness rules. He witnessed the toll it took on his mother and maternal grandfather.

“Alzheimer’s is now coming for me. It is a death in slow-motion, like having a sliver of your brain shaved off every day,” he said in a recent NPR interview.
O’Brien chronicles his journey and its effects on his family in a 2021 documentary film directed by Steven Ecclesine showing Saturday, Aug. 27 at the Chatham Orpheum Theater.

In 2014, O’Brien wrote “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s,” a book about living and coping with the disease. He described how about 60 percent of his short-term memory was prone to disappearing in 30 seconds.

“There are times I don’t recognize people I’ve known all my life, I get lost in familiar places, and see things that aren’t there,” he said in a 2014 speech to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.

The experience is akin to a voyage into deep space.

In 2015, NPR interviewed O’Brien for the podcast series titled Inside Alzheimer’s. He has since collaborated with the UsAgainstAlzheimer’s association to produce other podcasts along with 28 episodes of the twice-monthly NPR show, The Forgetting: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s.

“As a journalist, I put a stake in the ground and said, ‘We’re going to start to talk about it,” he says in the film trailer. “I see myself as a window, not a martyr.”
O’Brien’s short-term memory continues to come in and out of focus. His journalism training gave him the tools to take copious notes that help him keep track of who he is.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million people in the U.S. are living with the disease. In 2020, COVID contributed to a 17 percent increase in Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths, which rose 145 percent overall.

Today, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. By 2050, that number is likely to triple to 153 million worldwide, according to a 2022 global dementia study published by the Institute for Health and Metrics Association and Alzheimer’s Disease International.

“It is ironic that I must say this, but we need to make Alzheimer’s popular,” O’Brien said. “We need to give this disease a voice. Cancer and heart disease research funding exceeds Alzheimer’s funding by light years, yet Alzheimer’s is expected to outpace cancer and heart disease seven-fold in years to come.”

Google Books calls O’Brien’s story “naked, wrenching, and soul-searching for a generation and their loved ones about to cross the threshold of this death in slow-motion.” It calls “Pluto” a trail-blazing road map that “is both a ‘how-to’ for fighting a disease, and a ‘how not’ to give up.”

Hope, faith and humor combine as a prescription O’Brien calls far more powerful than conventional medication. While he rejoiced at the birth of his first grandchild, Adeline, in 2016, he also decided upon an exit strategy: not treating his Stage 3 Prostate Cancer. He said he hopes the cancer will kill him before Alzheimer's disease completely robs him of his identity.

Tickets at $20 are available online at www.chathamorpheum.org for the Saturday, Aug. 27, 6:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. screening, and post-film Q&A with O’Brien, director and producer Steve Ecclesine and Lisa Genova, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist and author of the New York Times Bestseller, “Remember: The Science of Remembering and The Art of Forgetting." Genova’s novel about early-onset Alzheimer’s, “Still Alice,” became an Academy Award-winning film starring Julianne Moore. The Orpheum Theater is located at 637 Main St. in Chatham.