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The Trouble with Alzheimer's

This summer will mark my 20th anniversary as a reporter. It would seem that after two decades of doing the same thing, you wouldn’t constantly be second-guessing yourself. But my most recent assignment was among the most troubling for me in a long time. I was working on a story about Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t know a lot about it. I thought it affected very old people, made them forgetful, end of story. And then I met Carl Hopkins.

Carl Hopkins is 74 years old. He’s had Alzheimer’s for about four years. When I met him at his house, he seemed like any other retired senior. He likes to drink a lot of coffee and putter around his well-equipped garage. At the beginning of the interview, he was articulate and upbeat. And then, I noticed traces of the disease. Something his wife, Sue Holloway, had pointed out earlier. Carl repeats himself. I know we all do, but this was different. He said the same phrase several times. This, I learned, is a common symptom of the disease.

When I began reviewing my tapes to decide what segments of the 45-minute interview I would leave in the story and what I would cut, I was faced with this dilemma: how do I show the viewer how this disease is affecting Carl in everyday life without subjecting Carl to embarrassment? I could have cut the tape so you saw a few of Carl’s articulate answers. You might think, gee, this guy is fine.  I knew from meeting Carl’s wife, that wouldn’t be fair. Sue, like so many caretakers, is watching her husband slowly fade away. He is no longer the guy who used to barbeque for friends every weekend because he’s now uncomfortable in social situations. It’s difficult for him to follow conversations. He can’t garden anymore because he fertilizes and waters everyday, forgetting he did it the day before. He still has a driver’s license but Sue won’t let him on the road by himself; last spring, he went missing for six hours. He used to be able fix things. He can’t do that anymore. He even forgets what he can no longer do.