Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Has Dementia
Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter and a longtime advocate for greater access to mental health care, has dementia, the Carter Center said on Tuesday.
The announcement came just over three months after the center said that Mr. Carter, who at 98 is the longest living president in American history, had decided to forgo further medical treatment and would enter hospice care at the couple’s home in Plains, Ga.
The center said on Tuesday that Mrs. Carter, 95, “continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones.”
“We recognize, as she did more than half a century ago, that stigma is often a barrier that keeps individuals and their families from seeking and getting much-needed support,” the center said. “We hope sharing our family’s news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctor’s offices around the country.”
Dementia is not a disease, but an umbrella term for a cluster of symptoms indicating cognitive decline. People with dementia struggle to remember, think and communicate clearly. They may get lost in their own neighborhood or forget the names of their spouses or children.
They may also struggle to perform basic tasks like showering, getting dressed or driving a car, said Dr. Joel Salinas, a cognitive-behavioral neurologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health and chief medical officer of Isaac Health, an online memory center. Many people with dementia also develop depression and anxiety, he said.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.
The vast majority of people with dementia are over 65. And by the time someone is in their 80s, they have a roughly 30 percent risk of developing dementia, Dr. Salinas said. Family history, especially having parents or siblings with dementia, a traumatic brain injury, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking can increase the risk of developing dementia.
Medications can help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease; the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new drug, lecanemab, to slow cognitive decline, although that medication comes with the risk of bleeding in the brain and swelling. Behavioral interventions, like cognitive rehabilitation training, can also be beneficial.
“The earlier you can detect, diagnose and treat, the greater the impact you’ll have on the long-term trajectory of these conditions,” Dr. Salinas said.
The Carters have been married for 76 years, the longest marriage in presidential history. It is a partnership that has weathered his rise from Georgia politics into the White House and his defeat in the 1980 presidential election, which sent the couple back home to Plains as political outcasts with a faltering business.
As the couple reflected on 75 years of marriage in 2021, Mr. Carter said their bond had only deepened in the later years of their lives, as he endured a series of health crises, including a bout with the skin cancer melanoma, which spread to his liver and brain.
“We’ve just grown closer and closer together,” Mr. Carter said.
Last week, while Mr. Carter was in hospice, a grandson, Jason Carter, told The Associated Press that the former president and Mrs. Carter were spending time with family and “doing it in the best possible way: the two of them together at home.”
“They’ve been together 70-plus years,” Jason Carter told The A.P. “They also know that they’re not in charge. Their faith is really grounding in this moment. In that way, it’s as good as it can be.”
Mrs. Carter once said that her interest in mental health began during her husband’s 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia. As she traveled the state, she said, she was amazed at the number of people who told her of mental health problems in their families.
“I began to realize that something had to be done,” she said in 1976, “and that we were the ones that had to do it.”
Mrs. Carter served on a commission to improve mental health services when her husband was governor of Georgia, was honorary chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health during the Carter administration and lobbied for passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which required states to spend money on mental health programs. For more than three decades, she also convened an annual gathering, the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, to discuss ways to improve treatment and reduce stigma.
In 1977, she told an international meeting of mental health experts that their first priority should be teaching society not to fear people with mental illness.
“We must create a climate in which our most vulnerable are accepted,” she said. “We must start first with them. Then the rest will fall naturally into place.”
The Carter Center said that, as the founder of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, Mrs. Carter often noted that there were only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.
“The universality of caregiving is clear in our family, and we are experiencing the joy and the challenges of this journey,” the center said. “We do not expect to comment further and ask for understanding for our family and for everyone across the country serving in a caregiver role.”
Michael Levenson joined The Times in December 2019. He was previously a reporter at The Boston Globe, where he covered local, state and national politics and news.
Dani Blum is a reporter for Well.
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