I was watching televised pre-show news coverage of the Grammy Awards Sunday night when an entertainment reporter announced that country music legend Glen Campbell would be performing on the show—and that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Wow, was my immediate reaction. This could be a really uncomfortable moment.
When Campbell took the stage, you could feel the audience hold its collective breath as the 75-year-old icon launched into his hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” With a big smile and a seasoned showman’s bravura, he tackled the song—albeit a bit shakily, glancing frequently at the teleprompter—as the audience shouted out in encouragement and sang along with the refrain. It was a brave and uplifting moment, if also wistful and sad.
Last June Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease and would retire from show business following a farewell tour. In a recent interview with CNN, there was no trace of pity or regret in Campbell’s remarks. The interview offers a frank and revealing look at the struggles of a sufferer and his devoted family, who perform with him on stage and surround him with support and protection.
As Campbell told CNN, "I am content with it. Don't cry over spilt milk. Get up and be a man and do what you have got to do … I just take it as it comes, you know. I know that I have a problem with that, but it doesn't bother me. If you're going to have it handed to you, you have got to take it, anyway. So that is the way I look at it.”
Times sure have changed from when people with dementia were quietly escorted off life’s stage, not to mention the show business stage. I remember when family members talked in hushed tones about Grandpa’s advancing “hardening of the arteries” and “senility.” No one explained to this 10-year-old why this dignified man was acting so strangely or how he would be cared for. There were no informational resources for loved ones or dedicated memory care units that we knew of.
Many experts think the tide toward public understanding of Alzheimer’s turned when President Reagan’s diagnosis was revealed by his family. And, more recently, public figures like actor Charlton Heston have came forth with their diagnoses. Some, like women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, announce their diagnosis in the very early stages of the disease. They refuse to hide it.
With more openness will come more advocacy and, hopefully, more research and support dollars for a disease that currently is sorely underfunded considering the 16 million people forecast to be diagnosed with it over the next 40 years.