Proxmire's Memory Slips Away; Alzheimer's Silences Wisconsin Ex-Senator

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Proxmire's Memory Slips Away; Alzheimer's Silences Wisconsin Ex-Senator


Byline: Joyce Howard Price, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

William Proxmire doesn't recall his nearly 32 years of service on Capitol Hill as a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.

He doesn't remember issuing the 75 or so "Golden Fleece" awards to expose government waste.

Mr. Proxmire, 87, resides at Copper Ridge, a long-term care facility in Sykesville, Md.

Like about half of all older Americans in nursing homes today, Mr. Proxmire is there because he has Alzheimer's disease.

"As brilliant as my husband was ... nothing he says now makes sense anymore," the former senator's wife, Ellen, 78, said in an interview.

Mr. Proxmire was not nearly so impaired when he publicly disclosed his illness in March 1998, nine years after leaving the Senate.

"I can't remember what I've read," Mr. Proxmire said at the time. "Sometimes I can't remember where I am, although it doesn't happen very often."

Mrs. Proxmire said her husband was diagnosed formally in 1994. That was the same year former President Ronald Reagan told the world he had Alzheimer's, a progressive disorder marked by a destruction of brain cells, brain shrinkage and a resultant loss of mental function. The condition eventually leads to death.

Mr. Proxmire made his poignant disclosure four years before Charleton Heston, a movie actor and president of the National Rifle Association, stunned Americans by making a similar announcement.

His wife recalled how Mr. Proxmire began to recoil from social engagements to avoid being asked questions he couldn't answer. Sometimes he left soon after arriving. "He didn't want to be embarrassed," she said.

At Copper Ridge, Mr. Proxmire has a personal caregiver who is with him daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. "When I visit Copper Ridge, his caregiver keeps telling him, 'That's your wife.'"

She said Mr. Proxmire "will just laugh and laugh" when told that. Asked how she feels about the unusual response, she says, "He's not miserable. He was miserable for years and years" after developing Alzheimer's.

Mrs. Proxmire said it had been about a year and a half since her husband last talked about old memories.

She said he mostly recalled growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., where his father was a physician. "He'd ask, 'When is my father coming to get me?'" Mrs. Proxmire said.

It was that long ago, she said, when Mr. Proxmire confused his son, Ted, with a brother named Ted, who died in the 1930s.

Alzheimer's patients typically forget all events in their recent past, but may recall events and individuals from many years earlier.

Today, said Mrs. Proxmire, her husband seems to have no memories and says little.

Mrs. Proxmire said a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who recently visited Copper Ridge asked Mr. Proxmire questions about his career and other matters, but the former senator couldn't answer any of them.

The reporter said Mr. Proxmire spent most of that day humming.

"He's always very pleasant. He shakes hands [with everyone he meets], but he can't discuss his career," she said.

She said Mr. Proxmire was known as a political leader as well as an athlete and author. …

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