Will Ferrell Movie About Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s Sparks Controversy

When is it ok to laugh?

When news broke this week that Will Ferrell was planning to portray the late President Ronald Reagan during his Alzheimer’s struggle in an upcoming comedy, it prompted a swift backlash.

In the movie, Ferrell was reportedly planning to play the late president during his second term in office, as he struggled with the beginning stages of dementia. According to Variety, in the movie an intern must convince Reagan that he is an actor playing the president. Reagan’s surviving family members were vocal in their opposition to the project.

“Alzheimer’s is the ultimate pirate, pillaging a person’s life and leaving an empty landscape behind. It sweeps up entire families, forcing everyone to claw their way through overwhelming grief, confusion, helplessness, and anger,” Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, wrote in an open letter to Ferrell on her website published Thursday.

“Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have — I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either,” she wrote.

In a tweet, her brother, Michael Reagan said, “#Alzheimers is not a comedy to the 5 million people who are suffering with the disease, it first robs you of your mind and then it kills you.”

On Friday, a rep for the comedian reportedly told Page Six that Ferrell is no longer pursuing the project, and insisted that it was “by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested.”

Whether the film moves forward or not, it brings up an important point – when, if ever, is it ok to make light of Alzheimer’s disease?

After experiencing my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, I can attest firsthand that it can feel downright impossible most of the time to find the humor in it. But though there were many days when I was overcome by the grief of the “long goodbye” to my mother, along the way I was able to laugh at some of the more absurd, unbelievably ironic moments. And in the three years that followed my mother’s diagnosis, my online supporters laughed along with me, and that shared experience became an essential stress reliever and coping mechanism for me.

But that was my story to tell, and I can’t say how I’d feel if an outsider came in and started making fun of it. The same could be said for the Reagans. Their father’s battle with Alzheimer’s is their story to share. It’s not Will Ferrell’s, or anyone else’s, and they have every right to be angry about a comedian’s proposed depiction of it. Whatever the intentions of the filmmakers may have been, an outsider’s representation of a loved one’s battle with Alzheimer’s is sure to be hurtful to the family involved.

In the desperate, often hopeless moments that accompany a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, dark humor may be called for as a coping mechanism for both patients and caregivers. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything remotely funny about the disease, and I can’t imagine that a comedy mocking it would be anything but painful for the survivors.

Laura Dixon

As Caring's Editorial Manager, Laura writes and edits articles about important issues for family caregivers and seniors. See full bio