Jeanne Little

Reporter: Laura Sparkes

Katie "Mum would hate this, she would absolutely hate this, she always, I remember her saying oh god if I go silly put me out in the back and get rid of me, she'd hate this but what do you do."

"I think ninny would like this one it's got fairy wings" Katie says while choosing fairy outfit for little charlotte to wear

It's the weekly trip to visit gran or in this case Ninny but for Katie Little the weekly journey is full of sadness....anger that her larger than life mother is losing her mind.

Katie "when you go to visit and you go mum, mum, which you've done your whole life and you get this kind of blank, slightly confused look back at you, where you know she can slightly recognise you but its horrible, just horrible."

But what makes this story even more heartbreaking? Katie's mum Charlotte and Tom's Ninny is our beloved 3 time Logie award winner Jeanne Little.

She has Alzheimer's, sadly her decline has been swift the transformation of Jeanne devastating

Katie "if you watch old tv footage of mum she was one of the most vibrant tv personalities you are ever likely to come across, you wouldn't believe mum is the same person struck with this disease you wouldn't believe it."

Laura "How fast has her decline been?"

Katie "She went from a glamorous woman perfectly capable of looking after herself to someone who needs 24 hour assisted care, with basic things like how to get dressed in the morning, how to eat breakfast in 6 months, it was so fast."

Jeanne Little fell into television in the 70s. The zany, crazy, glittering larger than life character who got her big break on the Mike Walsh Show sporting outfits she'd made from unorthodox materials

Katie "I still remember dad and I sitting in the tv room night after night sitting there flattening silver milk bottle caps because mum was sewing them all over her dress and it looked fantastic."

But her flamboyant nature soon saw her take a starring role on many variety shows and as the years wore on Jeanne survived, reinventing herself more recently on the popular Beauty and the Beast

Katie "I loved mum with dark hair that was the mum I grew up with."

For Katie, these photo albums help to keep Jeanne's real personality and spirit alive...the family snaps revealing the Jeanne we didn't know. Jeanne the mum oh but the showgirl was always there

"I mean look at this get-up she's in on holidays, exactly just average family holiday that's what Mum would wear, pink jumpsuit, yep." Says Katie

But sadly THIS Jeanne is no more, the disease has ravaged her mind so greatly she's unable to give an interview.

"This is the mum I want to remember." Says Katie

Seeing her zany, whacky side from before and now visiting her every Sunday it must be hard. Asks Laura

"Its like two different people, in my mind its two different people, and I think that's why it was so hard to come to terms with all of this." Says Katie

Katie "we had a really good visit a month or so ago where suddenly she put her hand on tom's shoulder, I get a bit teary talking about this, and suddenly said tom that was so touching seeing her recognise her grand kids for a moment and then gone again that's really heartbreaking because you're kind of dealing with someone, its almost as if you're talking about someone as if they've passed away, but they haven't passed away they're still there deep down, but you just cant get through."

But then you have moments of clarity where she's back?

Katie "Yeah for a second and you can go through for 4 or 5 visits with nothing at all and then suddenly get just a glimmer, or she recognises us or she'll say something."

As a daughter how do you deal with that when your own mother doesn't recognise you?

Katie "There were times when I went to see her and came home and balled, balled for 24 hours, you go through this huge rollercoaster of emotions like all the classic emotions you go through anger, denial, you go through utter despair and shock, I think i've come to terms with that now that she doesn't recognise me."

Katie's father Barry is still too upset to speak about his wife.

Katie "I really think dad is still in shock because mum was his life, now that she's in a nursing home I don't think dad has come to terms with it and how can you? I just don't think you can."

It's not hard to recognise though that Katie is every bit Jeanne's daughter.

Katie "When i did the article recently for new idea they said oh we need another top and i said ive got this great top ive been dying to wear for a special occasion, and this is it, i put it on, and i went its gold lame im wearing gold lame on a photo shoot, im turning into my mother."

And it seems Jeanne's genes have passed through to her grandson Tom

Katie "We went out and did the bike ride thing, he wasn't interested in the bike ride but tim wanted to take a photo and he struck a pose, he's so much like my mum and knows everyone when you go for a walk up the street everyone knows him by name he stops to talk to everyone, its quite uncanny."

Maria "Bosom buddies from Mame that was our theme song, we just had a great time for years and years and years and then suddenly Ive never had much to do with this type of disease before

Maria Venuti and Jeanne performed together for more than 35 years.

Jeanne, one of the first to be revealed through the sliding doors of Maria's This is Your Life episode.

Maria "you just couldn't believe someone so vibrant, this horrible illness would attack this beautiful person, this vibrant, generous, lovely woman, its so unfair so unfair."

Maria visits Jeanne every week in the hope that just for a moment the real Jeanne shines through.

Maria "I wear the same frock a lot so hopefully she'll think ah I know that, um, I'll say the same things, ladies and gentleman, Jeanne little and Maria Venuti, just be quite silly actually."

What do the hospital staff think of all that

Maria "they cant wait, they love it, I will go outside and have a little weep and come back, but you know I just want to be strong for her.

I don't want the people who have known and loved Jeanne Little for these years that don't really see her anymore, I don't want them to forget her, I want them to know she's here, strong and wonderful and were going to support her."

And there is a way to help. The Little family has set up the Jeanne Little Fund in the hope of raising money for research into this debilitating disease.

Katie "Lets sock it to her, lets try and do something positive, create a fund that actually goes toward research, lets wear vibrant colours, let's put mum's terrific image with her false eye lashes and looking fabulous on the web page because that's how mum would want to be remembered and I think shed approve of this."

Professor "I think it's a great idea particularly with someone like Jeanne who is known to so many Australians it's a great opportunity to use her name and popularity to raise money."

Jeanne's specialist is Professor Tony Broe one of the world's foremost experts on Alzheimer's and a senior researcher at Neuroscience Research Australia. He said Jeanne's personality helped her hide the early stages.

Professor Tony Broe "Jeanne little has classical Alzheimer's disease and difficulty naming people, but knowing Jeanne she has a tendency for calling everyone love and she got away with it."

Alzheimer's is the most common ageing disorder today 250,000 people suffer from it but as our population ages it will become even more common up to 1 million sufferers by 2050.

Professor Tony Broe "We know about how it starts, how it progresses, we know a lot about the pathology but we do not know a lot about the causal factors the primary aim is to prevent it, that's the aim of all this research."

Maria "This will be strictly for research to see if something can be done because we don't want beautiful Jeanne to lose any more memory you know."

Katie "Dealing with Alzheimer's has been one of the most painful things I've ever been through in my life I've seen friends and things horrible things happen, whatever you deal with that, but Alzheimer's is something else."

If anyone wants to donate to the Jeanne Little Alzheimers Research Fund you can go to Neuroscience Research Australia's website www.neura.edu.au/jeanne-little-alzheimers-research-fund

or call 1300 888 019 or make a tax deductible donation to PO Box 1165, Randwick, NSW 2031.