By announcing that she has dementia, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined a growing number of public figures who have chosen to share their dementia diagnosis. Dementia of course, can strike anyone at anytime, regardless of fame or fortune. What is relatively new however, is public figures willing to disclose their diagnosis.
According to a recent New York times article, “Dementia Is Getting Some Very Public Faces”, 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,” they wrote. Other public figures such as musician Glen Campbell and Hall of Fame women’s college basketball coach Pat Summit reached similar decisions in announcing their Alzheimer’s diagnoses.
Some might scoff at whether such announcements make any difference. After all, about 5.7 million people currently have Alzheimer’s and the number will continue to increase. Already it is the fifth leading cause of death for those aged 65 and older and the only one for which medicine cannot yet offer any prevention or treatment.
However, according to the article, researchers and advocates argue Justice O’Connor’s announcement serves a positive purpose. Many people who suffer from Alzheimer’s fear that sharing the information with others will result in people treating them with pity or condescension, or that their friends will drop away. Hearing that someone like Justice O’Connor publicly acknowledge their diagnosis can give them the courage to do the same.
Experts also believe there are other potential benefits as well, such as contributing to earlier diagnoses which can provide relief when difficulty remembering names, forgetting words, places or other symptoms are given a medical diagnosis. Also, when people avoid knowing, it can reduce the opportunity for the person and family to prepare for the changes that will surely come.
Alzheimer’s care is a long haul causing immense burdens on loved ones. The sooner the disease and its prognosis is understood, the better opportunity for family to prepare for the personal, financial and legal challenges. When public figures come forward, it helps to normalize the condition and hopefully help others to do the same.