Tony Bennet, the renowned singer and performer, recently announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, an incurable, mind debilitating disease that generally affects older adults.
In a moment, he was transformed from an age-defying singer and impossibly chic fashion icon, into someone who is suddenly staring into a darkened future. I was saddened by the revelation that this person, whose musical style and song interpretation helped define his genre of music for six generations of aficionados, was now about to be silenced.
But, fortunately, he is still able to sing and interpret the lyrics of the iconic songs he has become famous for; he is one of the more fortunate Alzheimer’s sufferers in that he is still able to function reasonably well and continue to do what he loves to do — sing. His wife recently remarked:
“He devoted his whole life to the great American song book. And now, the song book is saving him.”
His story is featured in the current issue of AARP magazine, which is designed to communicate relevant issues to the over 50 population. Why use that venue to reveal his story his family was asked? This is why:
“It is increasingly important for the more hopeful message to be heard. Over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. That number, doctors say, will likely rise to epidemic proportions as younger boomers (those born between 1954 and 1964) enter their late 60s and 70s. All of which means that staying silent about Alzheimer's will soon be as impossible for society as it has now become for Tony Bennett's family.
And his story of Alzheimer's is, like the rest of his long life, inspirational. That he has maintained such good quality of life is testament to the support he receives from his family, his medical team and his friends — and lends credence to what Lady Gaga told his son Danny when he first informed her that they were thinking of breaking the silence around Tony's disease. “I wanted to check with her to make sure she was cool,” said Danny, “because she watches his back all the time. She was like, ‘Absolutely, it's just another gift that he can give to the world.”
Alzheimer’s, like other similar illnesses that change how we live, needs to be openly discussed so that we all become more aware of its pathology and also of the options that we all have to make the most of the life that we’re left with after the onset of symptoms. Bennett is one of the more fortunate ones in that his impairments don’t yet deny him opportunities to know happiness through his singing. But, even if that were not the case, he and others like him now have choices as to how to live their lives because there are more options available, and also because we know that there is not just one variant of Alzheimer’s.
When I was a child, I remember that the word cancer was almost never spoken. It was alluded to or referenced or just mentioned by the letter C. It was as though the illness was the fault of the patient, or that the mere mention of the dread disease would bring misfortune. Since it was viewed as virtually incurable, speaking of it was avoided because it was viewed as a virtual death sentence. The advances in treatment and the number of cancer survivors that we meet each and every day, have changed that perception and attitude, but there are still those who won’t speak of it or discuss it. It’s the same with Alzheimer’s for some people - as though it’s too terrible to mention.
The reality is, when we talk about something terrible, we begin to make it more acceptable for people to share their concerns and therefore find assistance and sometimes, even solutions to what they may have thought was an insolvable problem.
We’re all susceptible to the possibility that something terrible will strike us or someone we love. Reaching out and talking about it not only helps you, but the rest of us as well.
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