Monday, August 25, 2008
Alzheimer's and the brillant Thatcher brain
August 25, 2008
It was November, 1994, when Ronald Reagan shocked the United States with an intimate open letter in which he told Americans: "I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease."
Last weekend, Britons received the same shocking news, when Carol Thatcher, daughter of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, described how her mother has suffered from growing dementia for eight years.
In an excerpt from her new book, A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir, serialized in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Ms. Thatcher describes how she first noticed her mother's memory was failing when she lunched with her at a hotel overlooking London's Hyde Park in 2000.
During their meal, Lady Thatcher's conversation became confused and she muddled the Falklands War with the conflict in the Balkans, her daughter writes.
"I almost fell off my chair. Watching her struggle with her words and her memory, I couldn't believe it. She was in her 75th year but I had always thought of her as ageless, timeless and 100% cast-iron damage-proof."
"The contrast was all the more striking because, until that point, she'd always had a memory like a Web site," she adds.
During her political career, Mrs. Thatcher (she was created a baroness in 1992) was known as the "Iron Lady" for tough-talking rhetoric and ruthless self-control.
"She could rise from the front bench in an economic debate and recite the rate of inflation all the way back to William Gladstone without a note," her daughter says.
But Lady Thatcher, now 82, is increasingly frail and finds herself floundering in the simplest conversation.
"On bad days, she could hardly remember the beginning of a sentence by the time she got to the end," her daughter says.
"That's the worst thing about dementia: it gets you every time," Ms. Thatcher says.
"Sufferers look and act the same but beneath the familiar exterior something quite different is going on. They're in another world and you can not enter."
While her mother has occasional flashes of lucidity during which she can happily recall some events during her term as Britain's prime minister in 1979-90, she struggles to remember more recent events.
Losing her husband, Sir Dennis Thatcher, to pancreatic cancer in 2003 "was truly awful" for her mother, Ms. Thatcher writes, "not least because her dementia meant she kept forgetting he was dead."
"I had to keep giving her the bad news over and over again," she writes.
"Every time, it finally sank in that she had lost her husband of more than 50 years, she'd look at me sadly and say ‘Oh,' as I struggled to compose myself."
" ‘Were we all there?' she'd ask softly."
During her term as prime minister, Lady Thatcher and Mr. Reagan became close friends. He called her "the best man in England" and she once said he was "the second most important man in my life."
In 2004, when Mr. Reagan died, after a decade of suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Lady Thatcher delivered one of the eulogies at his state funeral in Washington. She did so via a video link, since she had recently had a series of minor strokes and was already secretly suffering from the early signs of dementia.
"For the final years of his life, Ronnie's mind was clouded by illness," she told the funeral audience.
"That cloud has now lifted. He is himself again, more himself than at any time on this Earth, for we may be sure that the Big Fellow upstairs never forgets those who remember him."
(God Bless you Prime Minister Thatcher, you are in my prayers. VN8)