Police Chief Struggles with Alzheimer's Disease Spencer Johansen was diagonosed with Alzheimer's disease when he was 49. The Lexington, Ill., police chief is planning to continue to work until those closest to him think it is time for Johansen to turn in his badge.
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Police Chief Struggles with Alzheimer's Disease

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Police Chief Struggles with Alzheimer's Disease

Police Chief Struggles with Alzheimer's Disease

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, a look at two opposite approaches in dealing with sex offenders.

COHEN: But first, last fall, 49-year-old Spencer Johansen found out that he has Alzheimer's disease. Despite the diagnosis, Johansen has decided to continue working, and he recently went public with that decision. Spencer Johansen is the chief of police in Lexington, Illinois. And he joins us now.

Welcome to the program, Chief Johansen.

Chief SPENCER JOHANSEN (Lexington Police Department, Lexington, Illinois): Thanks for having me.

COHEN: When did you first suspect you might have Alzheimer's?

Chief JOHANSEN: Several years ago, I started noticing just some lapses in my memory. And I noticed later toward evening on my speech - I was having a hard time maybe finding words that I was looking for. It wasn't until probably last year that it started getting my attention a little bit more, and my family's. And we had a history over to my mom's side of family, so that's what led me to get testing done.

COHEN: You are the chief of police. That's a job that comes with tremendous responsibility. You carry a gun. Did you have any concerns about safety as you continue to work?

Chief JOHANSEN: No. I am, you know, I knew when I went public with this that there would be some concerns, and those were justified concerns by several people and I understand their concerns. But I also think that if you understand this disease and the stages that it goes through, I think the stereotype of Alzheimer's patients is that, you know, an elderly person in a nursing home. And that's not the case.

I mean there are people with their early symptoms, the early onset of it, they can still do what they do. And I understand my position is a little bit different than anybody else's, but it's one of those decisions that, along with the doctors, my family and I just decided that, you know, the best thing for me to do is just keep working.

COHEN: It seems like you've surrounded yourself with people who will be keeping an eye out for you and your ability to make certain decisions, certain judgment calls. Is there a certain point where you think you might be best served not to be carrying a weapon?

Chief JOHANSEN: I think down the road, yes. And I'm prepared for that. I think, you know, eventually when I talk to my doctors and they say, you know, we think that you ought to be taking these measures, I think I will accept that. As far as me knowing personally, I think I would. I think I would know when I don't feel comfortable with it. And I realize that there's going to be those who say, well, you know, with the Alzheimer's, will I be able to make that determination myself. And I go back to watching my family members.

I mean, I think one thing with me is that the first thing - when I went to the doctor with this - number one, I went to the doctor with it and told him, you know, I think there's something going on. I think I need to be checked. So I was aware enough to go get evaluated at first. And I believe with my knowledge of this and my knowledge of law enforcement I'll know when it's time to relinquish my weapon and my position.

COHEN: Is there any part of your job that you think might have to change or need to change as you live with this disease?

Chief JOHANSEN: Well, something that I started doing several years ago, and I don't know that it's related to this, but I mean I take more notes in what I did. I rely on my appointment book quite a bit more. And I write the stuff down, which is good in law enforcement anyway that I keep accurate notes. But as far as my day-to-day routine, I don't see any right away. I mean, I think I know what's going to happen. I know what I'm going to have to do down the road, and I'll be prepared for that when it comes.

COHEN: You're only 49 years old. I read that approximately 500,000 Americans between the ages of 30 and 60 years old are diagnosed with Alzheimer's. What's it like get that diagnosis at such an early age?

Chief JOHANSEN: Well, it's hard to explain. It was an up and down rollercoaster for a while. I think the hardest thing was probably telling my kids and then my mother, who lost a sister and two brothers to this. One thing, you know, when I first found this out, I'll admit I sat around and I felt sorry for myself for a while. And then I decided that, you know, I can best serve this by going public with it and joining with the Alzheimer's Association to bring a greater awareness to this.

So I think as long as I've got that to fall back on, you know, my early retirement plan, I was going to retire when I was 55 and go to a barber school. And I don't think that's going to pan out now. But my message that I would like to get across is that it's not an immediate death sentence, you know. There's still a life out there and I intend to live it right up until the end. I mean, I'm going to continue to speak out for this and hopefully keep serving my community, not maybe in the law enforcement capacity but maybe with the Alzheimer's Association.

COHEN: Spenser Johansen is the chief of police in Lexington, Illinois. Thank you so much.

Chief JOHANSEN: Thank you.

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