Sandy’s Story: 7 years after Alzheimer’s diagnosis, ‘there’s still a good life’

(CNN)When he first sees me, Sandy Halperin always gives a surprised snort and then a cackle of delight. Before I know it, I’m enveloped in a bear hug, snuggled close and patted heartily on the back. If I’m lucky and Sandy remembers that he really likes me, I’ll get a back scratch too, a true Halperin hug.

“I feel my decline more rapidly right now,” Sandy has said many times. “Just like a confusion as the day goes on or times when I don’t even have thoughts — I’m awake, but … what was the question?”
In 2010, at the tragically young age of 60, Alexander “Sandy” Halperin, a former dentist and Harvard assistant professor, father of two and grandfather of three, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. For the past five years, at Sandy’s request, my CNN crew and I have been documenting his mental journey into twilight. His goal: to erase the stigma and shame that come with a diagnosis of dementia and to educate the world on how to best care for the growing numbers of people living with cognitive decline.
“I’m not ‘Sandy Dementia’; I’m Sandy the person I always was,” he has said with passion, arms waving wide. “I’m not missing a limb, but I’ve got a defect. But it doesn’t mean I can’t live my life to its fullest with that defect. So, as I decline, please treat me for who I am.”
 
What is happening to Sandy is being repeated around the globe in the lives of the more than 47 million people living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; over 5.5 million of those are Americans, including about 200,000 under the age of 65. Worldwide, the total number of people living with dementia is expected to rise to 131.5 million by midcentury.
It’s a frightening reality that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is determined to change. He’s investing $50 million of his own money to support cutting-edge research at the Dementia Discovery Fund, in the hope that an innovative approach to curing dementia will strike gold.
It was Sandy who was on my mind when I sat down with Gates recently.
 
 
 
“Any type of treatment would be a huge advance … from where we are today,” Gates told me. “The long-term goal has got to be cure.”
Will those currently living with dementia, like Sandy Halperin, benefit from that research? We can only hope. But while we wait for that big breakthrough, Sandy’s story is a powerful tale of what we can do now to help those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

The story continues …

 

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