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Sandra Day O'Connor reveals dementia diagnosis

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor revealed in a letter that she has been diagnosed with the "beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease." CNN's Ariane de Vogue reports.

Posted: Oct 24, 2018 10:30 AM
Updated: Oct 24, 2018 10:30 AM

Sandra Day O'Connor would likely be the first person to tell you she's not an activist. During her time as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court starting with her appointment in 1981, she eschewed the idea of being a banner carrier for all women; she left that role for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined her on the court 12 years later.

But if there was ever an issue that O'Connor was an activist about, it was Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's was what forced her from the court in 2006, to spend more time with her husband, John Jay O'Connor, who was diagnosed with the disease in the mid-1980s -- not too long after O'Connor was appointed to the highest court in the land.

For most people, an Alzheimer's or dementia diagnosis is something to hide, something about which to be ashamed. By announcing it openly, O'Connor was helping to destigmatize the disease that afflicts 5.7 million Americans. All too often, people with such diagnoses are written off as gone the moment they tell family and friends. But people can live for years and still contribute to society, still often work in the early stages, and still have meaningful and profound experiences.

Over the years, O'Connor was open about the hardship of seeing the one you love slip away, and slowly forget you. As he regressed, which is a common symptom of Alzheimer's, he forgot his wife and began to have a romance with another woman in his senior community. The family decided to be public with this information, in part to help bring awareness to the disease. "Justice O'Connor is certainly to be commended for ... raising awareness and helping to reduce stigmas," Peter Reed, senior director of programs at the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, said at the time.

While this phase is utterly normal for someone living with the disease, it is incredibly heartbreaking for a spouse. I found this out firsthand when my father, who lived with Alzheimer's for 15 years before his death in 2016, went through what I dubbed his randy teenage years in his senior community. I instructed the staff to tell the women residents' husbands that treatment for prostate cancer years earlier had left my father impotent. That led to more than one teary phone call from a husband grateful to know that my father wasn't capable of doing more than heavy cuddling.

But the decision to be public with such a private episode was very much in line with O'Connor's quiet activism all her life. Though she never publicly identified as a feminist, when she served as an Arizona state senator from 1969 to 1974, she spent a good amount of her time undoing sexist state laws, and in 1972 she championed the passage of Equal Rights Amendment, though the Arizona legislature did not approve it. "I care very much about women and their progress," she later said. "I didn't go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the State of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed."

And Tuesday's announcement is another piece of quiet activism. "While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life," O'Connor wrote in her statement withdrawing from public life. She added: "As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the US Supreme Court." O'Connor, who hasn't spoken publicly in two years, could have just faded away without a statement, as others have done in similar situations. But she chose again to share publicly a very private thing.

I hope for O'Connor joy in reliving her unfettered youth as an Arizona cowgirl, should her disease regress as her husband's did. After a life of service to justice, to women and to those caring for and living with Alzheimer's, we owe her our thanks and well wishes for the long goodbye.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 64400

Reported Deaths: 1825
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds5416112
DeSoto347227
Madison236360
Harrison228735
Rankin220231
Jackson215641
Jones182857
Forrest170155
Washington154835
Lauderdale137990
Lee129732
Neshoba126490
Lamar117713
Oktibbeha107737
Lowndes102333
Bolivar101032
Warren99531
Scott97820
Panola96012
Sunflower94223
Copiah92928
Lafayette90714
Leflore88261
Pike86133
Holmes85948
Grenada81921
Yazoo80312
Lincoln78741
Pontotoc7808
Leake77625
Simpson76730
Wayne74921
Monroe73151
Coahoma68410
Tate68327
Marion63419
Marshall6169
Covington60313
Adams59625
Winston59315
Union55215
George5454
Newton53011
Pearl River51537
Tallahatchie51210
Attala51024
Walthall48219
Chickasaw43819
Noxubee43811
Claiborne39913
Calhoun3929
Smith38913
Clay38014
Jasper3799
Alcorn3775
Prentiss3699
Hancock34914
Tishomingo3445
Itawamba32310
Clarke32225
Tippah32013
Tunica3076
Yalobusha30410
Lawrence3027
Montgomery3023
Humphreys28111
Carroll24811
Quitman2381
Greene23011
Kemper22715
Jefferson Davis2256
Perry2207
Amite2176
Webster21112
Jefferson1936
Wilkinson19313
Sharkey1913
Stone1603
Choctaw1294
Benton1280
Franklin1152
Issaquena241
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 91776

Reported Deaths: 1639
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12186230
Mobile9269204
Montgomery6350148
Madison512227
Tuscaloosa400269
Baldwin332223
Shelby311932
Marshall300134
Unassigned287856
Lee255442
Morgan227015
Etowah196728
DeKalb172113
Elmore163337
Calhoun162713
Walker147964
Houston133412
Dallas129823
Russell12672
St. Clair125214
Limestone122713
Franklin121520
Cullman117112
Colbert112213
Lauderdale111113
Autauga103021
Escambia98115
Talladega94613
Jackson8904
Chambers83238
Tallapoosa82778
Dale79823
Butler75435
Blount7453
Chilton7386
Coffee7255
Covington71620
Pike6727
Barbour5645
Lowndes56124
Marion54724
Marengo52914
Clarke4919
Hale45926
Bullock44411
Winston43511
Perry4324
Wilcox41110
Monroe3964
Randolph39210
Bibb3844
Pickens3769
Conecuh37310
Sumter36018
Lawrence3251
Macon31613
Washington31512
Crenshaw3073
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2497
Greene24711
Henry2473
Geneva2430
Clay2255
Lamar2052
Fayette1785
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