For Samuel L. Jackson, his Apple TV+ limited series “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is very personal. Adapted from Walter Mosley’s 2010 book of the same title, the series centers 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey who suffers from dementia. Generally written off by his family, save for his nephew Reggie, played by Omar Benson Miller, Ptolemy is largely a hermit who lives in squalor. When Reggie stops coming by, Robyn, the teenage daughter of his niece’s friend, who has passed away, and needs a place to stay, steps in and up, cleaning Ptolemy’s apartment and becoming his caretaker.
The focus on dementia and Alzheimer’s is something that hits home for Jackson. “I’m from a family where I felt like I was surrounded by Alzheimer’s. My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my mom, there are people on my father’s side who have Alzheimer’s, and I watched them change, deteriorate, and become different people over the years,” he shared with journalists during the 2022 Television Critics Association tour.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s annual report, Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, from 2021, “one in nine people age 65 and older (11.3%) has Alzheimer’s dementia,” accounting for 6 million Americans and “older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older whites.”
So, Jackson is helping to raise awareness by putting a Black face to the disease. Still, for Jackson, it’s just personal. “Being able to tell their story or listening to them and understanding that things in their past are more their present than what’s going on in their everyday life and understanding how to convey that to people” is more the motivator than representation.
With “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” Jackson also wanted to ensure that those who love folks struggling with dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as the caregivers and the sufferers themselves, felt seen. “Giving an audience an opportunity to know that they aren’t the only people who watch their loved ones deteriorate that way, who need an outlet to look at someone else dealing with those particular things, and having a young person like Robyn, played by Dominique (Fishback), to come in and access this person and to look at that person like they were worthwhile, that the memories that they have aren’t a place that they should abandon. That it’s OK to have that, that it’s OK to remember. It’s OK to live in a place, and that you are still a worthwhile individual even though a lot of people discard you.”
Alzheimer’s and dementia have become more common, with a projection that 12.7 million Americans, more than double the number now, will suffer with the disease by 2050. It has also become more deadly. According to the report, “between 2000 and 2019, the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease as recorded on death certificates has more than doubled, increasing 145.2%, while the number of deaths from the number one cause of death (heart disease) decreased 7.3%.” On top of that, “among people age 70, 61% of those with Alzheimer’s dementia are expected to die before the age of 80 compared with 30% of people without Alzheimer’s — a rate twice as high.”
When asked how he copes with aging, Jackson, who is 73, replied “exercise, diet, understanding how to take care of yourself. I finally — once I sobered up (alluding to his past challenges with addiction), I discovered the value of sleep. I used to sleep like three hours a night. But sleep is so valuable, and I treasure it now. And people say I’m blessed because I can sit down and just go to sleep and wake up in 15 minutes and do something.”
“Reading, making sure that I keep my mind active, giving myself an opportunity to exercise my mental capacity the same way people will exercise their bodies … There are a lot of different things. And, fortunately, I made enough money,” he laughed, “to get people to massage me and I discovered acupuncture, all these things that hopefully will keep me vital for at least another 20 years.”
A lot of these strategies also come highly recommended from the National Institute on Aging. Ultimately, Jackson believes “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is “an honest and, hopefully, endearing assessment of the deterioration of life that a lot of us face, feel in a personal way with someone who’s in our family or maybe people who feel themselves slipping and need to see and find a way to pull themselves back.”
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is streaming on Apple TV+ now.