For Omar Sharif, love survives even in tough times

Omar Sharif’s case sheds light on an illness rarely discussed in this region, writes Rym Gazal

Omar Sharif as he appeared in the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago.  MGM / AP Photo
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In our darkest hours, we tend to reach out to those we love the most. Throughout his life, the actor Omar Sharif has mentioned his former wife, the actress Faten Hamama. He talked about her whenever he was asked about the best time in his life.

"She was the love of my life," he often said. The First Lady of Egyptian Cinema shared her first screen kiss with Sharif, and their love story lasted for more than 20 years, defying social and religious barriers. Hamama died in January, but 83-year-old Sharif keeps asking about her. He's forgotten she is gone.

The actor, best known for his roles in Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, made headlines this week when his son Tarek told a newspaper that his father has been struggling with Alzheimer’s for three years.

Getting muddled and forgetting things are just the beginning of what is likely to be a painful deterioration. Alzheimer’s causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. This cruel illness erases one’s existence by stealing cherished memories and destroying almost all of who that person is.

Sharif’s case sheds light on an illness rarely discussed in the Middle East.

There is unfortunately no cure, with the illness occurring as a result of damage in the parts of the brain that deal with thought processes. We don’t often talk about these types of brain-related illnesses in this region and just assume that is just part of getting old. But Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of ageing. Although the greatest risk factor is advancing years, there are some cases of early onset.

There are many studies on how a healthy lifestyle, such as eating healthy food and working out, as well as brain games such as chess, puzzles, Sudoku and learning languages, helps prevent Alzheimer's.

However, it is not that clear cut. After all, Sharif is fluent in English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian and Greek and speaks some Turkish and German as well. He had struggled with heart problems in the past.

There are some prescription drugs that can temporarily slow down the worsening of dementia symptoms if caught early enough, which can somewhat improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

It is often the hardest on the loved ones of those who are afflicted. I recall several cases of elderly neighbours who would end up wandering the streets in a confused state.

Dementia sufferers can often end up being locked up at home, away from visitors, with most of their immediate family avoiding them as sometimes they are difficult to deal with, especially as they can be moody and withdrawn. Regularly the grandfather of a neighbour would be found wandering about.

I once saw his son, who looked about my father’s age, cry as he pleaded with his father to come back home with him. The older man refused. He was angry, scared and confused.

Thankfully, everyone in the neighbourhood always helped out. Another elderly man came and gently took the hand of the afflicted.

“Yala my friend, let us go have coffee together,” and both of them walked home.

There is no substitute for what a close knit neighbourhood can do in difficult times. Unfortunately, it is something we are missing in modern life. It is not a coincidence that studies keep finding higher rates of depression and mental illnesses in big cities.

So whatever the case, don’t take your or your loved one’s health for granted. Always tell those you care about what is in your heart, because you never know when it will be too late.

On Twitter: @arabianmau