SCOTT SIMON, host:
Earlier this week retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor talked to Congress about her family's struggle with Alzheimer's. Justice O'Connor stepped down from the court in 2005 to care from her husband who suffers from the disease. During her testimony before a Senate committee, Justice O'Connor pressed Congress to put more money toward Alzheimer's research.
Ms. SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR (Former Supreme Court Justice): If you can just shave off by five years the onset of Alzheimer's, broadly speaking, think of the money you'd save nationally on health care.
SIMON: More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, and as the population ages that number is expected to soar. Alzheimer's doesn't just strike the elderly, it can fell adults in the prime of their lives.
Sarah Varney from member station KQED visited with one family in a San Francisco suburb who found their lives suddenly interrupted.
SARAH VARNEY: Gary Roseny(ph) laughs easily and smiles with his eyes in a way that lets you in on the joke. His shoulders are broad and athletic, his cheeks pink from the sun. He seems like the guy who has it all - a disarming pertrition(ph) at the peak of his game with a backyard pool and a precise golf swing.
He's all of those things, of course, and yet he can't remember exactly how to set the table for dinner.
Ms. MARCIA ROSENY (Wife of Alzheimer's Sufferer): You need to set the table.
Mr. GARY ROSENY (Suffers from Alzheimer's): I do?
Ms. ROSENY: Um-hum.
Mr. ROSENY: She always tells me what to do. She really does.
VARNEY: Gary's wife Marcia points to the silverware drawer. He counts out the forks, knives and napkins. He walks to the dining room table and puts down a knife here, a fork there, but can't quite finish the puzzle.
Mr. ROSENY: (Unintelligible) forever but…
(Soundbite of laughter)
VARNEY: Gary used to run an energy management company. On a routine business trip to Florida during a routine sales presentation, Gary got confused and couldn't go on. He got back in his rental car - he was by himself and didn't know where he was supposed to go next. That was three years ago when he was 57.
Mr. ROSENY: I didn't feel as secure a I, you know, I thought I would be. Usually, I mean, you know, talk well and, you know, get things going and all that stuff like that. Do you remember that?
Ms. ROSENY: For him it stands out one particular trip but for me I remember a number of times, like, coming home and him being confused about making airline reservations or in another time I came home and he was having trouble writing a check.
VARNEY: Gary's wife Marcia said at first she dismissed some of these incidences as just the normal process of getting older. Gary went to his doctor anyway and took some tests just to be safe. He passed the test but the moments of memory loss kept adding up. A little while later at a wedding, Gary kept reintroducing himself. He took the test again and flunked.
Ms. ROSENY: First it's scary that it's going to be Alzheimer's and then it's scary, like, what do we do now?
VARNEY: Early onset Alzheimer's is particularly brutal. It fells men and women in their 40s and 50s at the peak of their careers and capabilities. They might be able to work for a few years until the memory loss gets so bad they either retire early, like Gary, or are fired for poor performance.
Marcia says in a way, though, Gary's illness has been harder for her than for her husband.
Ms. ROSENY: Our roles are totally different. I mean, I couldn't be any more different, don't you think? I mean, he was, you know, outgoing and take charge and in charge and did all the bills and the taxes and the money and everything. And I just kind of was much more passive, took care of the house and the kids. And now sometimes it's hard because we're definitely out of our comfort area. I don't want to be in charge, and he oftentimes doesn't like…
Mr. ROSENY: What?
Ms. ROSENY: You get annoyed sometimes when I'm in charge and telling you what to do and taking turns. Don't you think? I mean…
Mr. ROSENY: Oh, never…
Ms. ROSENY: Yeah.
Mr. ROSENY: …never that.
VARNEY: But while Gary's memory loss has forced Marcia to take on new roles, Marcia has noticed that Gary has become more of who he already was, a happy-go-lucky optimistic guy. He's not oblivious to what's happening to him but he sounds more like a man who's been given a new lease on life, not like one whose life has, in a very profound way, been cut short.
Mr. ROSENY: I'm generally a happy person, you know, and I like sunshine and walking and eating and drinking and, you know, and my lovely wife. And it's just, you know, what's not to be happy about.
VARNEY: Since his diagnosis a few years ago, Gary's symptoms haven't worsened much. He still drives around town, plays golf with his friends, visits with his children and granddaughter. This summer Marcia will retire and she and Gary will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
It's clear she's still so very much in love with him, even as she waits and waits for him to stutter through a sentence. Marcia says she doesn't obsess about where this is all headed.
Ms. ROSENY: You know that you don't know what the future's going to bring. And so you know it in a profound way and so you just kind of live for the day.
VARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.