A handful of experts took the podium Thursday during the grand opening of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in downtown Phoenix.
There was Eric Reiman, the institute’s executive director; Peter Fine, CEO for Banner Health; Harry Johns, president and CEO of the National Alzheimer’s Association; and David Shenk, whose book “Alzheimer’s: Portrait of an Epidemic’’ is considered the definitive work on the subject.
And then there was Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, whose experience with the disease is personal rather than clinical.
“I’m not here as an associate justice retired or even as a longtime public servant in the state of Arizona,’’ she told the crowd. “I’m here because I am one of the many people whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer’s.’’
O’Connor was nominated in 1981 as associate justice to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004 after a 10-year-battle with Alzheimer’s. She left the bench in January, retiring to help take care of her husband, John J. O’Connor, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
So it seemed entirely appropriate for O’Connor to share the stage Tuesday. The man most responsible for putting her on the bench and the man most responsible for her decision to leave it both had Alzheimer’s.
This is not as much of a coincidence as you might suspect, especially when you consider that, according to Johns, one in 10 people over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s symptoms. The figure is one in two for those over 85.
It is, indeed, an epidemic of monumental scale.
“It is the single most important and least embraced cause in America today,’’ Johns said.
But the cause figures to get a lot of attention in Arizona, thanks to the arrival of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. Its 10-year plan has an anticipated budget of $100 million.
That money will go not only into research and treatment, but also into providing information for families who struggle to take care of their afflicted family members.
Although strides are being made, there is much the medical community does not know about Alzheimer’s. And if doctors are limited in their understanding, the vacuum of knowledge is even more pronounced among family members.
They struggle with how to care for their family members, how to know what treatments are available and how to assess the success of the treatments, how to track the progress of the disease, what to do in terms of finding assisted living options.
Banner Alzheimer’s Institute intends to serve those needs, too. Because the patient is not the only person who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Leave it to the plain-spoken O’Connor to put Thursday’s proceedings into practical terms.
“It’s time to quit talking about beating Alzheimer’s,’’ she said. “Let’s get on with it. Let’s do it.’’