CLEVELAND — For many families, a viewing of the 1983 classic, "A Christmas Story," is an integral part of their holiday traditions. Even to this day, for those that starred in the film, their characters have become part of their identity, including actor Zack Ward, who played the role of bully Scut Farkas. However, after his father was recently diagnosed with advanced-stage Alzheimer's Disease, Ward has responded to his most important casting call yet: advocacy.
Ward, who has since gone on to a successful acting career in both television and film, came back to Cleveland this week to greet revelers and visitors at A Christmas Story House, the actual home of Ralphie that is used in the film. He helped to guide tours, sign autographs and take selfies with fans.
"A Christmas Story is part of my life in a way that I can’t even dismantle it from my life experience. It is something I did when I was 13 years old and it has turned into this amazing juggernaut," Ward said. "I am greeted by complete strangers as if I’m a long lost relative that they are happy to see. They share their most precious family moments with me in the room when they watch the movie. It's an incredible thing where I am part of all these people’s lives when they are being the best part of who they are."
The hoopla around his stay wasn't about vanity, but rather, advocacy for the Alzheimer's Association. In July, Ward's 74-year-old father was diagnosed with stage four Alzheimer's Disease, a degenerative, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and critical thinking skills. Eventually, during the disease's final stages, the patient is unable to carry out the simplest tasks.
Ward said his father underwent cognitive tests over the summer after he forgot how to get to Ward's home, a place that he had remodeled and visited hundreds of times over the past two decades. Ward said his father also had difficulty figuring out which direction was north, south, east or west, an alarming and troubling fact considering Ward's father was a lifelong Boy Scout.
In a blog post on the Alzheimer's Association website, Ward recalled his father's reaction to the diagnosis.
"My dad wilted in his chair, shrunk down to the size of a small child. It was literally his worst nightmare, having seen his own mother die a painful death from Alzheimer's," Ward said in the blog post.
The diagnosis, Ward said, made sense, considering his father's smaller episodes of forgetfulness and confusion over the past couple of years. The clarity, however, didn't make it any less difficult to bear.
"Now, he’s at a state where if he has a clothes hanger and a shirt, he doesn’t know how to put them together. It’s heartbreaking. Not everybody has a family that supports like mine did. People need help and [the Alzheimer's Association] can help you. It sucks in so many ways, especially with Christmas. It's a time where families need to help each other," Ward said. "It’s been really hard and I feel for him. It’s hard. It’s really hard. But families stick together through the hard times like the Christmas Story."
The lessons that "A Christmas Story" provides, including the importance of family and perseverance, have played out in Ward's life over the past several months.
"That’s the comparison, right? You watch 'A Christmas Story' and the reason it’s a great movie is because it was hard. Nothing worked out the way it was supposed to," Ward said. "Yet they came together as a family and that’s what you need."
Since his father's diagnosis, he has championed an active role in advocating for more funding, research and support of the Alzheimer's Association. He chronicles the daily struggles and challenges on his Twitter account, reaching caregivers and family members of Alzheimer's patients all over the world.
"You can see that it is not an easy journey for anyone involved, those that are diagnosed or the caregiver," said Liv Passe, the development manager for the Cleveland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "With [Ward] opening up, we hope we can continue to spread awareness."
The non-profit Alzheimer's Association has been there for Ward at every turn, he said.
"They started offering me support in things I didn’t even know that I needed. I thought I was just alone," Ward said as he fought back tears. "Yeah, you’re not alone, you have help."
Ward's father has transitioned to a skilled nursing facility just a few miles from where Ward's sister lives. The family spends as much time together as possible, Ward said.