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

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Confirmed Cases: 117617

Reported Deaths: 3302
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds8011179
DeSoto721079
Harrison539884
Jackson469387
Rankin401686
Madison384394
Lee364082
Forrest309478
Jones296184
Washington260399
Lafayette253143
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Lowndes181262
Panola170640
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Warren156056
Monroe153073
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Marshall147330
Lincoln142959
Pike140456
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Scott126229
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Simpson122349
Union119725
Tate119339
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Wayne102722
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Tippah93123
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Hancock85928
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Winston84621
Tishomingo82241
Attala80526
Clarke76353
Clay70522
Jasper69217
Walthall64127
Calhoun62713
Noxubee60117
Smith59816
Yalobusha55614
Montgomery55423
Claiborne53916
Tunica53617
Lawrence53414
Perry51223
Carroll49712
Stone48614
Greene47918
Humphreys44916
Amite42713
Quitman4216
Jefferson Davis41711
Webster37813
Benton3608
Wilkinson33820
Kemper32715
Sharkey28715
Jefferson27710
Franklin2483
Choctaw2086
Issaquena1074
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 160380

Reported Deaths: 2713
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson23573377
Mobile16994316
Tuscaloosa10462140
Montgomery10352198
Madison942298
Shelby750465
Baldwin671269
Lee657165
Calhoun464761
Marshall442651
Etowah434151
Morgan422335
Houston419334
DeKalb349228
Elmore324653
St. Clair304042
Limestone293631
Walker283793
Talladega271437
Cullman255725
Lauderdale233842
Jackson219417
Autauga208231
Franklin206432
Colbert206032
Blount197225
Russell19603
Chilton190432
Dallas188127
Coffee180711
Dale178952
Covington175929
Escambia174931
Chambers136847
Clarke136617
Pike134514
Tallapoosa133987
Marion110331
Barbour10429
Marengo102622
Butler101241
Winston94013
Geneva9217
Lawrence86933
Pickens86918
Bibb85015
Randolph83516
Hale77730
Cherokee75614
Clay75312
Washington75112
Henry7236
Lowndes71628
Monroe65510
Bullock65017
Crenshaw60930
Perry5956
Fayette58913
Cleburne5739
Wilcox57012
Conecuh56513
Macon53920
Lamar5085
Sumter47421
Choctaw39312
Greene34616
Coosa2093
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