Public Figures Testify about Private Alzheimer's Ordeals

Eric J. Hall Health Guide
  • Often, we hold celebrities and politicians up on a pedestal, but, in reality, they are just like everybody else...experiencing the same family dilemmas, the same diseases, the same crises. A hearing held on May 14 by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging exemplified this.


    The hearing focused on "The Future of Alzheimer's: Breakthroughs and Challenges." The importance of the topic brought forth former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as the major witness, marking the first time she has spoken publicly about her personal stake in the issue. Her husband, John, has been living with Alzheimer's disease since 1990 and currently resides in a nursing home.

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    The retired justice, just like the millions of unheard of caregivers, knows the impact that Alzheimer's disease has on more than the person with this heartbreaking brain disorder. She underscored it, with eloquence and compassion.


    "Living with this disease has been sad and difficult for my entire family," she said. "But it has also given us a first-hand understanding and a profound empathy for caregiving families around the nation. These caregivers are continually called upon to make fundamental sacrifices and adjustments in their lives in order to nurture and support the people they love."


    Justice O'Connor also emphasized, "While Alzheimer's takes a staggering toll on families, it is not just a family disease. Indeed, Alzheimer's is fast becoming a national disease-a national health crisis."


    Adding to the power of her words, others with recognizable names stepped forward. Politician after politician candidly revealed how Alzheimer's disease has hit close to home. Among them, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and co-founder of the Alzheimer's Study Group, noted that he has faced "the particular cruelty of this disease at various times over the years...And now, in my own family, I have watched my sister-in-law care for her mother as she is slowly but irretrievably claimed by the disease."


    Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware unveiled a string of Alzheimer's disease in his family: his mother, his mother's mother, and his mother's grandmother. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas recalled how her dad had "a long journey of almost 10 years of suffering," and her mom, his high school sweetheart, "never once gave up hope."


    At the root of describing the effects of the disease on their families was their call for a response to this growing epidemic. In short: more public and private funding for research, an expansion of clinical trials and more support for those with the disease and their caregivers.


    It takes courage to speak out about a disease that is so personal, and I applaud all those-Justice O'Connor, the politicians and the unknown folks-who recounted their stories at this important hearing. While those in the public eye may share the same private ordeals as you and I, typically when celebrities speak, people listen. Hopefully, these remarks heard ‘round the nation will spark action-strong action-on this national health crisis.



Published On: May 19, 2008