Living with Alzheimer’s

Tearing relationships apart, the disease is truly tragic in its scope and effects

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not, but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”

—Mark Twain

I’d like to share with you a story about Jan Chorlton. I think her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease is representative of what many affected Americans experience. I want to raise awareness of this disease because having Alzheimer’s makes many people scared and quiet. Only with early diagnosis and treatment can the best care be ensured for those affected.

Jan Chorlton, 61, is currently living in an assisted-living facility. She has Alzheimer’s disease, which causes memory impairment and slows decision making. Every day her condition worsens and her memories continue to fade. Her disease affects 5.4 million Americans; of those, 5.2 million are age 65 and older. A younger-onset form of Alzheimer’s affects people under 65. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and there is currently no cure. Alzheimer’s takes heavy tolls on patients’ families and friends, as they are forced to watch the disease rob their loved ones of their memories and their lives.

Jan was once a CBS reporter. In charge of CBS Sunday Morning, Jan would greet her audience every Sunday with a vivacious smile and a dose of news. Her focus was unshakable, her wit refreshing, and her spirit indefatigable. But starting at 40, Jan started having memory lapses. At age 55, Jan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In a recent interview, CBS reporter Barry Peterson sat down with Jan and her caregiver to see how she has changed. Sadly, it appears that Jan had lost herself completely to the disease.

Her caretaker Judi Pring recalls, “I will go to get her for lunch and she will be talking quite animatedly sometimes. And I will go in and she’s talking to the mirror. She’s very concerned about whether the person in the mirror is going to come with us to lunch. She will say, ‘What about her?’ And I’ll say, ‘Just you and I, we’re gonna go sit and have lunch together.’ And she’ll say, ‘Oh, okay.’ And she always makes sure she says goodbye to the person in the mirror.”

Jan has lost her journalistic wit, but she still has her vivacious smile. She greeted and hugged Peterson warmly and told teatime stories fondly. But she stumbled very often when recalling memories — she would pause but then continue, dismissing her folly with a laugh. The conversation would continue like nothing had happened.

Often Alzheimer’s patients startle themselves by forgetting certain facts, like where they’re driving to or which number to dial to call a friend. This forgetfulness frightens many patients, especially those not yet diagnosed. Losing the ability to remember is losing the most basic but vital human function. Without it, we go back to being children, unlearning what life has taught us. And like children, we are scared by what we do not know. Alzheimer’s patients, when corrected, are confronted with the reality of their conditions. They get distressed, their palms may sweat, and they may even break down. So Judy and Barry did not correct Jan when she stumbled.

Barry Peterson had chosen to conduct the interview for a special reason. Midway through the interview, he reveals to us that Jan is, in fact, his wife. What follows is truly heartbreaking: He asks her about her memories with her husband. She says, “I know that he will always be in my life.” She speaks of her husband in third person, not realizing that the man she married is in front of her, with tears in his eyes. Alzheimer’s has erased her recollection of Barry and her marriage. Further along in the interview, Barry asks, “What’s his name?” Jan responds, “Mr. … Mr. Happy.” She stumbles. But then she laughs and flashes her vivacious smile. Barry’s expression is pained but hidden.

Concluding the interview, he hugged her. For a long while in the embrace, he mourned for what he had lost: his wife. Seeing Alzheimer’s patients losing memories of their family and friends is heart wrenching. Families and friends can only watch as their loved ones slip further away from them.

But Barry will always go back to see his wife. And he continues to stay strong for her, just as millions of families do for their loved ones affected by Alzheimer’s. And those without families will never be alone — the Alzheimer’s Association has established local chapters that offer support groups all over the U.S. and helplines for care consultation. Living with Alzheimer’s is hard, but life can be better by having those who can help.

Chris almost 12 years ago

Thank you for your article and its realism. Unfortunately I'm at the beginning as my wife at 55 has just been diagnosed. I hope we can see a break through in cures and treatments soon as time is running out. May you have the strength to endure in your care.

Pedro almost 12 years ago

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Thank you very much.

Jeff Stuber almost 12 years ago

Your story was very touching, thank you for sharing it. Hopefully, soon there will be a cure for this debilitating disease. Living with Alzheimer's is difficult and the caregiver needs as much support as possible. Please take the time to take care of yourself too as you care for your wife. Wishing you all the best!

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

A good insight into the emotions surrounding Alzheimer's diagnosis. For anyone who enjoyed this article and would like to read a similar account, I absolutely loved the recent book Still Alice, set in Cambridge.