Commentary: Reflections on ’80s icons, Alzheimer’s disease

The disease that strikes at the heart of a lawyer’s skills should not be kept a secret.

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  • | 5:10 a.m. January 3, 2019
  • The Bar Bulletin
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Rose Marie K. Preddy
Rose Marie K. Preddy

By Rose Marie K. Preddy, JBA Estate Planning, Probate and Tax Law Committee chair

A few months ago, we heard the news about media mogul Ted Turner. Days later, the same news came about retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Before that, it was actor and comedian Robin Williams. The first person I heard announce the news was former President Ronald Reagan.

The “news” was the dreadful fact that these people were literally losing their minds. They were diagnosed with forms of dementia.

I was in middle school when Reagan, the Great Communicator, picked O’Connor as the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Soon after, Turner created the concept of 24/7 news with CNN. Williams was a household name for making America laugh on TV and in movies.

Later, their minds betrayed them.

I wonder how Turner and Williams would have reacted if in 1985 they were told that in 30 years they would be haunted by little imaginary people running around them, since both were diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. For Williams, hearing that news might have been too much to bear as he took his own life in 2014.

In my practice, I have observed an increase in those (including fellow attorneys and judges) coming forward and “admitting” that they or their family member have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

I use “admit” in quotes because of the stigma associated with the disease. Once admitting you have the disease, people expect you to ride off into the sunset.

When Turner and O’Connor announced that they had Alzheimer’s, they did so to announce that they were leaving public life.

I personally think it also was to fend off demeaning reports about their mental failures. Prior to the announcement, I assume they were functioning well enough to keep their diagnosis a secret.

Many know the disease’s progression can be gradual and subtle.  A 2015 study compared nonscripted news conferences of President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

The study showed a significant decline over time in Reagan’s use of unique words and an increase in filler words such as um, er, OK, right and well. President Bush, who did not have Alzheimer’s, did not show the same pattern of decline.

It is unclear what stage of Alzheimer’s Reagan was in during his years in the Oval Office. His presidency ended in January 1989, but he did not announce his diagnosis until 1994.

While I would like to see an end to the stigma, I believe the news would be devastating to the careers of attorneys and judges, even in early stages.

Alzheimer’s can be unforgiving. It is always there to trick and discourage you by making you forget words and lose focus. 

Our memory, use of language, focus and concentration are critical to success. Unlike other diseases, Alzheimer’s strikes at the heart of a lawyer’s skills.

On the other hand, attorneys and judges keeping the secret for too long, combined with the gradual impairment, can harm many parties.

When working in a firm, other attorneys and staff may notice your impairment before you do and catch mistakes.

Years ago, when working with an older and highly reputable opposing counsel, in the midst of a critical negotiation he forgot a very basic legal term. There was awkward silence. It was clear he was embarrassed. I gave him the word and we moved on.

While you may not (and perhaps should not) announce that you have early stages of Alzheimer’s, you still can make responsible decisions including asking, in confidence, trusted colleagues to hold you accountable and delegate duties gradually.

Early stages of Alzheimer’s may not impact your practice, but regular assessment with trusted family, friends and your own attorney are wise moves.

Rose Marie K. Preddy is owner of the Preddy Law Firm P.A. She practices in estates, trusts, probate and guardianship.