There’s a special bond between mothers and sons that lasts a lifetime—and then some. For actor and longtime Alzheimer’s advocate Peter Gallagher, it’s one that has inspired him to tirelessly support fundraising and research efforts for a cure to the disease that debilitated his mother for nearly 20 years.
Best known for his roles in American Beauty (1999), The O.C. (2003) and While You Were Sleeping (1995), Peter Gallagher was born on August 19, 1955, in New York City and raised in Armonk, New York. His mother, Mary Ann, was a bacteriologist, and his father, Thomas Francis Gallagher, Jr., worked as an advertising executive. Gallagher graduated from Tufts University, where he was active in theater.
The youngest of three children, Gallagher developed a tight bond with his mother, due in part to being a late-in-life, surprise baby. With siblings who were much older when he came along, he became particularly close with his mom Mary Ann, even taking care of her at times when she battled depression. “When I was growing up, my mom was the one who talked to me, and I was sometimes able to give back,” Gallagher has said.
Their close relationship continued over the years, and Gallagher gives his mom credit for much of his success. She was in the audience at the first Broadway show he performed in, Hair, in 1977, encouraging and supporting him. The navigator of the family, Mary Ann kept everyone on track until she became ill and then the family started to dissolve. “Alzheimer’s is not pretty, it can get embarrassing, and when the pillar falters, everything else changes,” Gallagher has said.
Strength in Community
Diagnosed in 1985, Mary Ann battled Alzheimer’s for nearly 20 years, until her death at age 89. While she lived with the disease for many years, she went from being a little out of reach to progressing quickly—a cruel yet common aspect of the disease. According to Gallagher, her decline tore the seams of the family to the breaking point.
For the many years before his mother’s death in 2004, Gallagher witnessed her gradual descent into the oblivion that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, slight memory lapses eventually gave way to a profound disconnection from the present. Occasionally, there would be moments of grace in the form of a moment of clarity. But eventually, she no longer recognized friends and family. Ultimately, it was her face that best conveyed both her love and fears.
“All of a sudden there would be a twinkle, a warmth and look of great love in her eyes. Then I would see fear in her eyes that I had never seen, as if the landmarks that were so familiar to her were now foreign,” recalled Gallagher.
Looking back, Gallagher recognizes that his grandmother (who lived with them at one point) also had Alzheimer’s—although they called it senility at the time. With this genetic heritage, he has admitted to worrying about his own future with the disease. In his career as an actor, and particularly as a Broadway actor, he has the added pressure of learning extensive lines and cues. Yet, Broadway is where he started his career and where he wants to be as long as he can. Speaking about his personal challenges of working on Broadway at this point in his life, Gallagher has said: “These moments are precious because I know the mental faculties won’t always be available.”
Married to his wife Paula Harwood since May 7, 1983, Gallagher has two children. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the opportunity to know their grandmother before she had the disease, a regret he has shared publicly.
Today, Gallagher continues to volunteer as a passionate advocate and ambassador for the disease.
As most families touched by Alzheimer’s disease experience, seeing a loved one’s decline is a unique type of pain experienced deeply. Feeling the frustration and inability to help a friend or relative can be overwhelming and life-changing.
“Watching a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s is excellent at making you feel powerless, but it doesn’t have to make you feel alone,” Gallagher has said. He embodies this sentiment as he publicly speaks out about the disease whenever possible, and participates at numerous fundraising performances. His tireless support of Alzheimer’s research over the years has been a true testament to his love for his mother.
Devastated yet inspired by his mother’s fight, Gallagher immersed himself in the search for a cure. He has participated in numerous fundraisers and charity events, all with the resolute hope that treatments for this devastating disease will be found soon. His crusade to spread awareness and raise funds is his way of memorializing his beloved mother, as he has been quoted: “I do it for my mother. It’s the best way I can think of to honor her.”