Scene4 Magazine — Les Marcott
Les Marcott
The Dreaded “A” Word
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October 2011

Glen Campbell announced over the summer that he has "it".  Women's basketball coaching legend Pat Summitt announced she has "it".  Most if not all of us have been touched by "it" directly or indirectly.  My dad had "it".  So what is "it"?  Well it's a word that you never want to roll off the tongue of your family physician. "It" is Alzheimer's disease.  It is such a dreadful progressive disease that one would rather have the diagnoses of cancer to deal with than the mind stealing disease of Alzheimer's.  At least with cancer, the odds get better with each succeeding year that you can beat it.  With Alzheimer's there is no such hope.  

And while many diseases have a public face associated with them (Parkinson's – Michael J. Fox, Muscular Dystrophy – Jerry Lewis who does not have MD but whose name has been synonymous with MD research  (until this year), arterial fibrillation – Barry Manilow), Alzheimer's lacks such a spokesperson.  Anyone afflicted with the disease would not have the mental acumen or clarity to testify before a congressional committee or host a telethon in order to garner the millions of research dollars needed to combat it.  Of course we all know the long list of beloved entertainers and celebrities stricken with the disease – Peter Falk, Jack Lord, Charlton Heston, Arlene Francis, Rita Hayworth, artist Willem de Kooning, and President Reagan.  

It has been speculated that Rita Hayworth's chronic alcoholism masked the symptoms of Alzheimer's.  This was also noted in my father's case.  The declining mental state, the rages, the incoherent outbursts were blamed on alcohol. Frustration and anger over the inability to articulate one's thoughts and feelings could have very well been the result of early onset Alzheimer's.  In any event, Alzheimer's eventually cures alcoholism.  It's a hell of a cure.  

It was Ron Reagan Jr. in his book "My father at 100" bringing to light what many have long suspected – Alzheimer's afflicting the president while he was still in office.  Reagan Jr., an avowed liberal, recounts how he would have lively arguments with his dad over the issues of the day.  But late into his first term, Reagan Jr. noticed a marked change in his dad's ability to follow and respond to discussions and points he was trying to make. Reagan's mental deterioration was on full display in the first presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.  The stumbling, the stammering, the blank stare, the inability to communicate was hard to watch.  It seems The Great Communicator failed to make a connection.  But all of that didn't matter, he made a quip about Walter Mondale's age and inexperience in the next debate and all was forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a landslide. And while Reagan gained the reputation as one who wasn't intellectually curious, it doesn't square with reality. In his pre-presidential era, Reagan was lively, engaged, and more than held his own in any number of debates. He did have a habit of rolling out old movie lines, but to be able to use them at just the right time reveals a high degree of mental functioning.  The public saw less and less of that over the years of his presidency. Had a physician made a determination of Alzheimer's during those years, then the course of history could have changed in a dramatic way.  His admission of Alzheimer's came in 1994- five years after he left the White House.

So far Glen Campbell and Pat Summitt have refused to go gently into that good night.  Campbell is currently on tour with family and promoting his final studio album called Ghost On The Canvas.  Anyone wanting to revisit his long and storied career can read a previous article I wrote concerning him. (archives nov. 2008)  At 75 years old, Campbell looks remarkably fit and trim for a man of that age. Physically fine but in an interview with ABC's Terry Moran, Campbell admitted to being 78.  No one admits to being older than they are unless you're 18 trying to buy a beer or afflicted with a neurological disorder.

The revered women's basketball coach Summitt has stated her intention to continue in her position at the University of Tennessee.  Known for her fighting spirit, she has won eight national championships while compiling 1,071 wins in the process (more than any other woman or man) during her 38 year career.  She survived an era in which women's sports weren't taken very seriously or as seriously as the men's but she almost singlehandedly changed perceptions and garnered a newfound respect for women's collegiate athletics.  Unbelievably, Summitt has been diagnosed with the disease at a relatively young 59.  She plans to rely on her staff as needed for input and coaching decisions.  And while one admires her courage, how long can she realistically stay on in the crazed, pressure packed atmosphere of college basketball? Stress has been known to make symptoms of the disease worse.  Will she simply become a figure head, leaving all coaching decisions to subordinates? Will fans and alumni tolerate television cameras broadcasting tight shots of her at court side?  These are all troublesome issues that will have to be addressed.  But in the end, we don't want our Presidents, pop stars, acclaimed basketball coaches, or your Uncle Fred's mental breakdowns on view for public display.  We understand what final tour, the last public communication, and the final goodbye entail.  We also understand dignity.  

While viewing a recent Campbell performance at Mission Viejo, California I unintentionally caught myself looking for flubs and "mistakes" in light of the Alzheimer's admission.  There was a point in his performance of Wichita Lineman in which Campbell seemed to be going one way and his band comprised mainly of family were going another. Then something brilliant happened, Campbell performed a majestic guitar solo and propelled the song which I'm sure I've heard hundreds of times over the years to a new level.  Just like my dad was lucid enough to speak my name and recognize me after months of incoherent babblings or complete silence. Just like Reagan late in his presidency told Mikhail Gorbachev "to tear down this wall".  I was never a Reagan fan, but I loved that speech and glad he was able to summon something within himself to deliver it.  Those are golden moments I know.  Alzheimer's always wins.  We only have the moment.  And for the moment the Wichita Lineman is still on the line. And yes, he's doing fine.

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©2011 Les Marcott
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4. His latest book of monologues, stories and short plays, Character Flaws, is published by AviarPress.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
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October 2011

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