Memory’s greatest thief

Published 4:52 pm Thursday, November 11, 2010

Last week, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in an op-ed article in the New York Times, called Alzheimer’s disease the “single greatest threat to the health of Americans.”

jessicaO’Connor was adamant: more time, money and research is needed and needed now to battle a disease that is “100 percent incurable and 100 percent fatal.” A disease, which “steadily robs its victims of memory, judgment and dignity, leaves them unable to care for themselves and destroys their brain and their identity…”

Standing at the front of this battle are the baby boomers, wide in scope and completely unarmed along with all of those who came before.

These are our parents and grandparents.

These are the men and women who endured the Great Depression, whose stories include those in which they picked dandelion greens to boil down into a soup because they had no money for food. Children who played in big pipes, used in development jobs because there weren’t big fancy playgrounds being built in every neighborhood.

These are the men and women who endured a war, which for some, with paradise as a backdrop, ripped away their innocence and challenged them to forge ahead before any of us ever knew how.

These are civil rights era heroes, the original game changers, the Vietnam soldiers and protesters, the artists, the writers, the painters, the politically-minded who were passionate enough their equivalent of Facebooking for votes was to knock on doors. Lots of doors.

And I worry about their stories disappearing, eroding away one by one.

I worry because my generation is stuck somewhere between brilliance and a generation that now wears pajamas outside of the house, in the middle of the day, while they do their grocery shopping.

I worry because my brain hurts after a day of trying to decipher a generation that can’t speak in complete sentences, who have no problem asking for a solution to a problem but just can’t quite get how to actually think through a solution to a problem.

And if they can’t think up their own solutions to problems, how will they find a solution to the next problem? The next threat, which in all likelihood will affect the rest of us?

Often when I think of the generational differences between us all, I feel as though those who are my age are stuck somewhere between the age of endurance and the age of entitlement.

Those above us are tougher than we could ever imagine. Those below more inept than we’d like to admit.

And that has to change before it’s too late.

When I think about what makes me up as a person, the morals, the values and the work ethic — those core pieces are not in any way thanks to my own brilliance.

Those core pieces are products of the generations that came before. That had it harder. That fought for what we have now.

Wherever we are, we can help by becoming educated and pushing for more — more research, more development and more action by our legislators who have before them the opportunity to increase funding so a cure can be developed or a manner of management for the disease can be administered — to protect our most valuable assets: each other.

“Medical science has the capacity to relegate Alzheimer’s to the list of formerly intractable diseases like typhoid, polio and many childhood cancers,” said O’Connor, who wrote the op-ed piece with Stanley Prusiner and Ken Dychtwald. “But unless we get to work now, any breakthrough will come too late to benefit the baby boomers. Whether the aging of America turns out to be a triumph or a tragedy will depend on our ability to fight this horrific disease and beat it before it beats us.”

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Jessica Sieff is a reporter for Leader Publications. Reach her at