Ronald Reagan’s journey with Alzheimer’s lasted over a decade due to his good health, robust nature and optimism. His political legacy lives on as he was one of the most popular presidents and possessed integrity and candor. However, his disease leaves behind a legacy as well. Because of Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s, this illness has received worldwide attention. Although Reagan tried to picture aging differently, changing on the outside while retaining an inner vitality, Alzheimer’s altered that optimistic vision. Nevertheless Reagan’s grace, affability, joy and spirituality helped allay the sting of the inevitable.
A loving partner by his side, Reagan turned to Nancy and opened his eyes to take a last look filled with love and recognition before he passed away. Although he had been unaware and vacant, his last look at Nancy was that of awareness and gratitude. To those of you who are skeptical, unable to believe that a patient in the last stages of Alzheimer’s can leave this world with an understanding and loving look, I wish to share a personal experience. I witnessed this clear-eyed look from my mother who died from Alzheimer’s this past December. Weak, asleep, unable to communicate, she opened her eyes to communicate a tearful farewell to me, her only daughter. In fact, she lifted herself up off the bed as well. It was miraculous. I assured her that I would be all right on my own; she didn’t have to worry. We had a special relationship and I knew that she was concerned about me, not about herself.
When we tend to Alzheimer’s patients, we need to realize that a real, beautiful soul is trapped in this prison. Just because standard communication is difficult or almost nonexistent, it does not mean that our loving words and gentle touch is not transmitted and registered by the soul. Who knows what long forgotten memories dominate the brain during this illness and what lucid moments break through from the present. Try to see the world through Alzheimer's eyes.
Reagan’s dying of Alzheimer’s gives a much needed grace, power and international attention to this complex disease. Nancy and Ronald learned to accept it and adapt to the limitations and even enjoy special moments along the way. We can all learn from their spiritual example.