"His Soul Couldn’t Have Alzheimer's": Ronald Reagan's Struggle With The Disease Through The Eyes Of His Daughter, Patti Davis
What is Alzheimer’s disease and how common is it?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 Americans aged older than 65 have it. The disease affects more than 44 million people around the world.
The first symptom of Alzheimer’s is worsening memory. Other symptoms include declining reasoning and changes in mood and behavior, such as depression, mood swings, apathy, and social withdrawal.
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These days, most people know what Alzheimer’s disease is. The awareness about this and other forms of dementia is increasing, and we can thank one of the greatest U.S. presidents for this. In 1994, Ronald Reagan let the public know he had Alzheimer’s, and that helped start the conversation about the condition.
Ronald Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s
Ronald Reagan was diagnosed by specialists at the Mayo Clinic in 1994. Mr. Reagan started to have memory lapses several months before that, his former executive assistant Peggy Grange recalled. In her memoir titled The President Will See You Now, she described an episode when he was telling a familiar story to his visitors, but just as he was about to tell the punch line, he stopped. He couldn’t remember it.
After he received the diagnosis, the 40th President of the U.S. and his wife, Nancy, made the announcement in a public letter. Here’s an excerpt from it:
My fellow Americans, I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.
Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.
In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.
So now we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.
At the time of his diagnosis, Reagan had been out of the Oval Office for five years. But he decided it was his moral duty to continue helping people of his country, so he made the diagnosis public.
Nancy Reagan took care of her slowly declining husband for 10 years until he died. When Mr. Reagan’s condition worsened, Mrs. Reagan re-read his old love letters to get a sense that he was still there.
On June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia (a complication of Alzheimer’s). In his last moments, he was surrounded by his family, the people he loved most.
Patti Davis memories of her father’s passing
Among those who were beside Ronald Reagan when he passed away was his daughter, Patti Davis. She was saddened by the loss of her beloved father, but she had the comforting thought: Alzheimer’s had taken over his body, but not his soul.
Reflecting on her father’s passing, Davis wrote in an essay:
My grounding, my mantra for the decade of my father’s illness was my belief that his soul couldn’t have Alzheimer’s. Beyond the broken synapses in his brain, beyond the cognitive decline, beyond the words he could no longer find, I believed his soul rested and watched, as clear and pure as eternity. As he left this earth, he let me know I was right.
President Reagan is remembered as a great and widely popular holder of the highest office. And his legacy as an advocate for Alzheimer’s research and the most famous Alzheimer’s victim is just as important.