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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 11:08 AM
Updated: Oct 24, 2018 11:30 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.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 749097

Reported Deaths: 13745
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1030271775
Lake554211006
Allen41613691
St. Joseph36933564
Hamilton36505416
Elkhart29347459
Tippecanoe22849225
Vanderburgh22540400
Porter19313325
Johnson18386387
Hendricks17583317
Clark13190193
Madison13111344
Vigo12602253
LaPorte12385221
Monroe12152175
Delaware10947197
Howard10250225
Kosciusko9609119
Hancock8541144
Bartholomew8158157
Warrick7854156
Floyd7763180
Grant7227179
Wayne7154201
Boone6911103
Morgan6735141
Dubois6211118
Marshall6205116
Cass5989108
Henry5893108
Dearborn588878
Noble579786
Jackson508374
Shelby500697
Lawrence4727121
Gibson444093
Harrison440473
Clinton439855
DeKalb438585
Montgomery433890
Whitley405642
Huntington402181
Steuben398659
Miami392568
Jasper386254
Knox375690
Putnam371860
Wabash360583
Ripley346470
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Jefferson335685
White329753
Daviess3028100
Wells294881
Decatur289992
Greene286385
Fayette284664
Posey273735
LaGrange272872
Scott269855
Clay265448
Randolph244683
Washington244534
Jennings235149
Spencer234131
Starke227558
Fountain218347
Sullivan213943
Owen210858
Fulton201542
Jay200832
Carroll193420
Orange188055
Perry186937
Rush175626
Vermillion173544
Franklin170135
Tipton165746
Parke148916
Pike137934
Blackford136032
Pulaski120047
Newton112636
Brown103943
Crawford102316
Benton100814
Martin91415
Warren83515
Switzerland8098
Union72810
Ohio57811
Unassigned0421

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1107047

Reported Deaths: 20091
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1284921459
Cuyahoga1155972204
Hamilton812991245
Montgomery524821040
Summit48339999
Lucas43303817
Butler38901603
Stark33286929
Lorain25641502
Warren24557303
Mahoning22330601
Lake21135385
Clermont20097252
Delaware18817135
Licking16645222
Fairfield16561204
Trumbull16522479
Medina15593270
Greene15252246
Clark14219306
Wood13280197
Portage13226214
Allen11905239
Richland11598211
Miami10835223
Wayne9116222
Columbiana9020230
Muskingum8889135
Pickaway8649122
Marion8635138
Tuscarawas8633247
Erie8052164
Ashtabula7137179
Hancock6996131
Ross6933161
Geauga6832150
Scioto6528104
Belmont6149174
Union583849
Lawrence5722102
Jefferson5669158
Huron5539122
Sandusky5436125
Darke5415129
Seneca5343126
Washington5308109
Athens523360
Auglaize501587
Mercer487385
Shelby476195
Knox4567112
Madison443765
Ashland435197
Putnam4333103
Fulton431871
Defiance431798
Crawford4033110
Brown401961
Logan387277
Preble3847103
Clinton378466
Ottawa372681
Highland359265
Williams347578
Champaign343658
Guernsey324153
Jackson317354
Perry297150
Morrow291340
Fayette285450
Hardin274865
Henry273267
Holmes2698101
Coshocton268359
Van Wert247264
Adams242856
Pike242735
Gallia240450
Wyandot234556
Hocking220162
Carroll196748
Paulding176342
Meigs148240
Monroe136144
Noble135839
Harrison113638
Morgan109624
Vinton85417
Unassigned03
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Tuesday is another mostly sunny and comfortable day with a small chance of a stray afternoon shower or sprinkle.
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