According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2013 “1 in 3 seniors are dying from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.” Today, the startling figures are in: more than five million people are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. And sadly, for renowned singer/actor David Cassidy, this has hit close to home.
Tragically, his mother, veteran Broadway star Evelyn Ward, was afflicted with Alzheimer’s-related dementia and bravely battled the disease for many years before succumbing at age 89 in December 2012.
Since then, Cassidy, partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association of America, has become an impassioned spokesman and crusader helping to raise awareness, funds and educate about Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s-related dementia.
Rock Cellar Magazine spoke with David Cassidy, who shared his very personal and heartbreaking experience dealing with his mother’s dementia, the immeasurable challenges this country faces over these deadly diseases and most importantly, what we as compassionate citizens can do to help.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Give us the back story on how you became involved with the Alzheimer’s Association. You have a very personal reason for your involvement, as your mother Evelyn Ward was afflicted with Alzheimer’s-related dementia.
David Cassidy: When you’re affected by something as dramatic and as personal as something like this and you’re the only child–basically other than my son, you’re the only living relative that knows her–you’re exposed to something that is very emotionally difficult. My mother was diagnosed with dementia, which is very similar to Alzheimer’s.
When someone disappears in front of your eyes and every time you see them, there’s less and less and less of them, it’s heartbreaking.
They can’t talk, they can’t walk, they can’t go to the bathroom, they can’t move without assistance. It’s very very disheartening and disturbing. And I wailed like a little baby when it hit me. I was at the facility with her and I realized my mom was gone and there was no coming back. There’s no cure. Then I began to look at the realities of our culture, which is the largest percentage of our population in America are baby boomers.
That’s 87 million people. The eldest reached 65 years old, which used to be the retirement age in 2011 but because we’re all living until we’re 85, 90 years old, the longer we’re living the more people will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Now it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
People need to realize that we’re truly at the point of an iceberg of such a magnitude where Alzheimer’s and dementia will be the first or second leading cause of death in the next ten to fifteen years.
That’s what it’s gonna be.
RCM: When did you notice the first signs of your mother’s disease?
DC: It was a long time ago. My mom was always kind of ditzy and when I say ditzy, she was never stupid but she would forget things all the time. So it took me longer than most to realize she had a problem. My son Beau said to me that Nana, his grandmother, is really forgetful now. Beau would stay for a weekend with her and I’d say, “Oh, she’s always been like that.” I didn’t even consider it. It wasn’t even something I thought about.
A couple of years later she married a beautiful person who was her third or fourth cousin, a veteran and POW of World War II. I urged her to marry him because they had benefits for one another. They’d been living together platonically for fifteen years. I said, “Mom, you don’t need to get married for romantic reasons, just do it for the right purposes. You love one another, you care about one another, and you’re companions with one another.” Finally a year before she passed away they officially got married. They were great partners and cared about each other. Her husband, Al was physically very poor but mentally completely sound and she was physically very good but mentally losing it. He could cover for her.
People often refer to others as becoming senile. That’s not it at all. There is no senility, it’s called Alzheimer’s or dementia and it’s a disease that the older we live more and more people are going to suffer from – and in my opinion no one will be able to avoid being affected by it.
RCM: What are you doing to raise awareness?
DC: Well, ultimately what we must realize is we don’t have enough facilities for care. More importantly or as important, we don’t have enough caregivers. Alzheimer’s and dementia is one of the more tragic things that can happen to a human being who’s lived a full life and has been a vital, functioning wonderful contributing citizen. But once the disease takes hold they become more and more insular and they become more and more afraid and lose contact with the rest of the world. Because of her age, many of her friends have passed away, so my Mom only knew a couple of people and then basically her mind disappeared.
RCM: Seeing your mother battling this disease must have been emotionally difficult. How were you able to handle and help her manage the situation?
DC: You become the parent. I’ve taken care of my mother for many many years. Besides there not being enough caregivers and facilities for Alzheimer’s and dementia, it costs a lot of money for proper care. You have to be fairly wealthy and well off so you can afford to pay ten, eleven, twelve thousand dollars a month to take care of an elderly parent. 20 or 30 years ago, they had what they called the “Sandwich Generation”, when you’re taking care of your elderly parents – and because you had children fairly late in life, you’re taking care of your kids and putting them through college too.
You have to be really successful to take care of an elderly parent afflicted with this disease because it’s incredibly expensive. What I’m concerned about is most of the people in our country do not have the financial resources that I’m fortunate to have, which enabled me to take care of my mom. I was able to give her 24-hour nursing care.
Going through this is the most heartbreaking experience anybody could ever watch.
In my case, watching my only parent disappear and become completely helpless has been devastating. Mark my words, this will be the conversation that is going to happen in five years more than any on the radio, talk shows, newspapers, magazines and television. In ten years it’ll be the main discussion of every media outlet and be the number one cause of death because the largest percentage of our population, as I told you earlier, are aging and they’re falling apart because human beings used to live 40, 45, 50 years. 90 years? Really? That’s where this disease becomes so prevalent. It’s expected. What happens to your body is everything shrinks. Your muscles shrink, your brain shrinks and it becomes less and less effective.
RCM: How can people help?
DC: The answer is to be proactive, and if you’re not now, you will be at some point and that’s a fact. It may take a year and it may take ten but everyone that you know who lives to 80, 85, 90 years old will be affected.
So you need to be proactive, you need to make other people aware. Stop being judgmental about looking at old crazy Uncle Eddie who we thought was senile.
No, he’s not senile; he either has dementia or Alzheimer’s.
RCM: In dealing with someone battling the disease, you’ve cited the importance of “companionship is essential; keeping them present and being”.
DC: Thankfully that was something I was able to do for my mom. I had a very good friend who I’ve known since I was a teenager and she knew and loved my mom. I asked her if she would consider being a companion and twice a week going over and spending a few hours with my mom. Just to make sure she was being taken care of properly and also to be there for her. She graciously agreed and wouldn’t accept payment because that’s what friends do for other friends. So she did help out and I insisted on paying her but she was so kind and compassionate she would have done it for nothing.
RCM: Is there anything that can be done for prevention?
DC: Yeah, there are a number of things that can be done.
Diet is important. Exercise. Using your brain. Doing things like crossword puzzles. It’s really important to keep your brain active.
It’s like anything else, “Is there anything I can do for my poor sad ass body?” Yeah, go and start exercising, start doing weights. Use it or lose it. It’s not a guaranteed that you won’t get Alzheimer’s of dementia but it can delay it. Do you know the youngest person who’s had Alzheimer’s? Do you know how old they are?
DC: Under 25. If you think about that concept, it’s a terrible thing. By your mid to late ‘60s often times the disease becomes very very evident in many people and sometimes it takes a lot longer, sometimes it happens earlier. There’s no way to know.
RCM: What are you doing personally in terms of prevention?
DC: I live a very clean and healthy lifestyle. I exercise and my diet is good. I weigh the same as I’ve weighed in the past 35 years other than five pounds. But I’ve always had a good diet. So exercise and diet are a big part of it and awareness is what I’m also trying to help with. Yes, we need funds because there’s not gonna be enough facilities for the baby boomer generation, which for me at age 63, I’m a part of.
RCM: Has the government intervened to help?
DC: Thanks to Obama, he’s begun to become aware of it. Obama is the most proactive and concerned person that comes to this cause. And the next President, whoever that will be, will have to be a lot more concerned about it because it’s gonna be a big part of what they’ll have to be dealing with. I think the government gave us a million dollars last year and they’re gonna give us five million dollars next year, which makes a difference. But it’s still a drop in the bucket when you consider we have 87 million baby boomers who may be afflicted by the disease. It’s a start but there’s so much more to be done.
RCM: Tell us about the recent Julien’s auction of your ’70s memorabilia, which raised a significant amount of money for the cause.
DC: I auctioned off some of my memorabilia, quite a few items that were very personal and also very public – my costumes, my guitar. There was something that I auctioned which was a big one for me and I thought that my fans might really like to have it. It was a telegram from my godmother to my Dad who was on a ship performing at the time and the telegram about my birth said, “On April 12th, 1950, mother and son are doing well.” I’d forgotten about it and hadn’t seen it for over 40 years. So I auctioned that off, I auctioned off a guitar, I auctioned off a number of my early jumpsuits and outfits that I wore in the ‘70s and thankfully they brought in many thousands of dollars and I was very happy about that.
RCM: What advice can you give to those faced with helping a spouse/family member afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia?
DC: My mother was in care for seven years and she was pretty much all gone for the last four years.
My advice for those dealing with this terrible disease is you need to tell your loved ones over and over again how much you love them and how beautiful they are.
That’s all I would ever say to my mom. I was her only son and she didn’t have anyone else to be with so all I would ever tell her was, “You’re so beautiful Mom, I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.” It was the truth but I’d repeat it over and over and over again for her. Even though it might sound so ridiculously redundant to say “I love you mom, I love you mom, I love you mom” over and over, I did it because I didn’t know when or if it would penetrate. I was with her when she passed away. I felt relief when she passed away.
It had to do with seeing your mother live in a diaper, seeing your mother not able to talk or walk and be virtually catatonic. For me, it was a beautiful thing that she finally passed because she was so healthy. That’s something I struggle with a lot. “God, why won’t you take my mom? She has no life anymore. Please take her out of her mental misery as a human being.” There are a lot of people who have a problem with that one. Some say, “Oh no, she’s a living person.”
She can’t feed herself, she can’t talk, she can’t walk, and she has no quality of life whatsoever. She sleeps 18 hours a day. It was a relief but it was so devastating for me. Why? I’d already lost my dad years ago. I’ve talked go a lot of my contemporaries who lost their last living parent and they’ve lost their minds. They felt, “Oh my God, I’m alone in the world.”
I’ve always been alone in the world because I didn’t have any brothers and sisters.
My brothers are my half-brothers; I never grew up with them so it wasn’t like that for me. I’ve always been really independent and really strong and really great by myself. It made me realize why some of my friends who have lost their last parent were feeling like they were drifting on the ocean without a life raft.
I understood that for them but because I’ve been so used to being the caretaker, it’s been a part of my life that I enjoyed doing because I love giving to other people and I only have one mom who I took care of for over 25, 30 years.
It’s really important that we talk about Alzheimer’s and dementia now because in the next few years it’s gonna be such an issue. We need money and we need facilities and care givers. There are a lot of people that are alone that would like to contribute to our society.
They need to contact the Alzheimer’s Association so they can help as well as educate them abut the disease.
For more information and to contribute to the cause, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.