(First appearing in the New York Times)
When retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor released a letter announcing that she’d been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease, she wrote,“As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life,” she wrote. “I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.”This statement means something to caregivers everywhere, that the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court would acknowledge, at 88, that she had the same relentless disease that was claiming their husbands and wives (and that killed Justice O’Connor’s husband, too, in 2009). Justice O’Connor has joined a growing but still tiny group: public figures who choose to share a dementia diagnosis.
The breakthrough came in 1994, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan released a handwritten letter disclosing his Alzheimer’s disease. “In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition,” the former president wrote. “Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.”
Musician Glen Campbell and his family reached a similar decision in 2011, announcing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and several farewell concerts, in a magazine interview. The concerts became a 15-month tour and an intimate, unflinching documentary.