Tom DeBaggio's Alzheimer's Journey Continues Five years ago, Tom DeBaggio told his personal story about his battle with early-onset Alzheimer's. A return visit finds the former nursery owner less sure of himself — and scared to death of getting lost again.
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Tom DeBaggio's Alzheimer's Journey Continues

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Tom DeBaggio's Alzheimer's Journey Continues

Tom DeBaggio's Alzheimer's Journey Continues

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Today we continue a conversation begun five years ago on this program. Over the course of a year, host Noah Adams did a series of interviews with Tom DeBaggio. He'd been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease when he was 57. In March of 2000, Tom DeBaggio told Noah of one surprise. He said he thought he had more time.

(Soundbite of March 2000 interview)

Mr. TOM DeBAGGIO: It's going a lot faster than I thought. Often the early onset Alzheimer's does goes faster, but sometimes it doesn't. So I don't know whether it's going - it's going too fast for me; that I can say. It's gotten to the point where I don't know what outrage will happen the next day, the next minute. It's a disease that causes outrage.

(Soundbite of frog croaking and birds chirping)

BLOCK: Last week we went out to Chantilly, Virginia, to see how Tom is doing, out to DeBaggio's herb farm and nursery. Frogs were in full voice around the fish pond. It's the busy season. The greenhouses are filled with basil, scented geraniums, nearly 100 kinds of tomato plants.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah, you want to see the food out here?

BLOCK: Tom DeBaggio took us out to the tomato section.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Why don't you tell me what that is there?

BLOCK: This is tomato viva Italia.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah, OK. This is one of my favorites here: San Marsano. You know why?

BLOCK: 'Cause it's Italian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Tom DeBaggio is 63 now. He started this nursery 30 years ago in his backyard in Arlington, Virginia. That's about 25 miles away from where the farm is now. His son Francesco has taken over the business.

Since those interviews with Noah Adams, Tom wrote two books about his experience with Alzheimer's disease, but he can't write now. We talked with Tom and his wife, Joyce, about how Tom's Alzheimer's is progressing. One change: Tom doesn't cook much anymore.

Ms. JOYCE DeBAGGIO: We have a gas stove, and it doesn't work quite properly, and we have to light it with a match. And he can do it, but I prefer to be there when he does it.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah, I used to do it all the time, but, yeah, I can't do it as well as I...

Ms. DeBAGGIO: One day he was going to - I thought he was going to light the inside of the pan instead of underneath the pan. So that was...

Mr. DeBAGGIO: But I really wasn't doing that. I wasn't really doing that. It just looked like it. Yeah.

BLOCK: Do you come here to the nursery? Do you come here often?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: If somebody can bring me.

BLOCK: You wouldn't drive it yourself.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Not--I couldn't. I--let's tell them about--the story about what happened.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Oh, about a year ago he...

Mr. DeBAGGIO: It wasn't a year ago 'cause it was longer than that.

Ms. DeBAGGIO: OK, maybe a year and a half. He got lost. He couldn't find it.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Well, what happened was something happened in my brain, and I didn't know really where I was. And I was way out in - I'd say I was way out, and then I came back. And I went through downtown, in through there, coming back, and I finally came back. And there was a cop; Francesco was there.

BLOCK: Here at the nursery?

Ms. DeBAGGIO: No, at my house.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: No, at the house, yeah.

BLOCK: Oh, at the house, back...

Ms. DeBAGGIO: Francesco was expecting him, and he hadn't shown up...

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah.

Ms. DeBAGGIO: noon. And I had been asleep actually. I had stayed up really late, and Francesco tried to call me, and, of course, I didn't hear. So in a panic, he came to the house. And previously he had been going out, and everything was fine.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Day before, you know, it--I could do anything.

BLOCK: So you'd been driving from--trying to drive from Arlington to here.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah.

Ms. DeBAGGIO: Right.

BLOCK: Francesco was here.

Ms. DeBAGGIO: Yeah.

BLOCK: You didn't make it, and he went back to see where you were.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: And then...

Ms. DeBAGGIO: And I called the police.

BLOCK: You had called the police?

Ms. DeBAGGIO: Yes, yes. I was terrified. And they came up, but in order to file a report for missing persons for Alzheimer's, I had to prove that he had Alzheimer's, or he wouldn't do anything. And so I did have an old doctor's bill that had a diagnosis on it, and so he was starting to write it up, and had just about finishing writing it up when Tom drove up looking absolutely terrified. I've never seen a more terrified look on anyone's face, and he was shaking. And so the policeman tore up the report.

BLOCK: Tom, do you remember being that scared?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Oh, yeah. Oh, I don't - I've never forgotten that. That was something I still hold. It's - I didn't know what was going on.

BLOCK: Joyce, when Tom came home and was so scared, what did you do to make him feel safe again?

Ms. DeBAGGIO: I don't think there's any way to make him feel safe again. He - I don't think he's ever felt safe again. He's very nervous about life. He's always apprehensive, always scared about something. His loss of confidence has been startling, really. He's not as sure of himself as he used to be, unless he - sometimes he gets so sure of himself that - becomes irrational, and he gets angry still. He doesn't like to be told what to do, which is, I suppose, part normal.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: (Laughs)

Ms. DeBAGGIO: But he's always been in control, and now he's not in control anymore. And he still knows that he used to be in control, which I think makes it doubly difficult for him 'cause he knows what he lost. He knows what's gone.

BLOCK: So you have that awareness?

Ms. DeBAGGIO: Yeah.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah, I still don't know what it is, but I guess they're looking for it. But I don't know whether they'll find it or not. They will eventually, but...

BLOCK: You're talking about a cure?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah.

BLOCK: You know, in those conversations four or five years ago, you sounded like you were pretty sure that there would be a very steep and quick decline at the time. And I wonder if you're surprised maybe at how well you're doing? As frustrating and...

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Well, I didn't have the medicines then. At the beginning we had just one or two things, and now there are a whole lot more, and that helps more. But I'm not - the thing I don't like now about it is because I can't - I can't really talk to people too much.

Ms. DeBAGGIO: He also can't read the newspapers anymore.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: I can't read the newspapers either.

BLOCK: You can't?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: No. Of course, I don't care anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: What happens if you try to read the newspaper?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: I can't read very well. I used to be able to do that all time. I used to love to do it. But I can't now.

BLOCK: Same with books, any kind of reading?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: I don't do anything, reading. What for?

BLOCK: It sounds like that used to be a real source of pleasure for you.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Oh, look at the - well, you're not in my house, but I got like that around with books.

BLOCK: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: It ruined me.

BLOCK: I'm curious what happens when you try to read. Do the words look like words? Do they not make sense?

Mr. DeBAGGIO: I can remember when I could do it, but when you ask me to do it now, it's just not there. There's really not anything I can tell you about it. It's just like it's not there anymore. That's all finished.

BLOCK: You still have your sense of humor.

Mr. DeBAGGIO: That's what some people say, then I get knocked down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DeBAGGIO: Yeah, I still smile.

BLOCK: Tom and Joyce DeBaggio, talking with us at DeBaggio's herb farm and nursery in Chantilly, Virginia.

Tomorrow we'll continue our conversation and hear more from Joyce on how she's dealing with her husband's disease.

You can hear the earlier stories and read excerpts from the two books Tom wrote about his experience with Alzheimer's at our Web site,

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