'Dear Abby' Struggles With Alzheimer's

ByDr. Tim Johnson via logo

Feb. 12, 2004 -- Never afraid to take on the serious issues, Pauline Phillips — the woman known to the world as "Dear Abby" — was one of the first to make the public aware of the private pain of Alzheimer's disease.

Nearly 25 years later, the irony is not lost on her son, Eddie Phillips, who is quick to pull out advice column written by his mother that appeared on Oct. 23, 1980, under the headline "Memory Disease Can't Be Forgotten."

"Dear Abby: About two years ago I began to notice a change in my husband. He became increasingly forgetful and easily confused," Phillips said, reading the letter on Good Morning America. "Have you ever heard of Alzheimer's disease? I feel so helpless — how do others cope with this affliction?"

The letter was signed "Desperate in New York." Abby's reply started out with a soothing tone.

"Dear Desperate: You are not alone," she wrote.

Some 15 years after that letter was printed, Pauline Phillips began showing signs of that same devastating disease. By the mid-1990s, she was already co-writing her column with daughter, Jeanne, and as the illness progressed, that passing of the torch was made complete. The original Dear Abby officially retired in 2002. She lives in Minnetonka, Minn., with her husband of 64 years, Morton Phillips, and she also has caregivers.

"We call them angels because they are who are with her 24/7," Eddie Phillips said. "She watches a lot of television. She loves visitors. She loves to get out. And when she gets out she still wears her Dear Abby sweatshirt and loves to smile and wave and blow kisses."

Housewife Becomes Household Name

Before she became known to the world as "Dear Abby," Pauline Phillips was a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom with a modest attitude.

"I don't pretend to be an authority on journalism or on human relations," Phillips said as her career began. "I just happen to be a very happy, a very healthy, a very lucky young woman with a fascinating hobby."

She found fame in 1956 after reading the advice column that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, and brazenly letting the editors know she could do better: "They gave her a bunch of letters, thinking that, that they would never see her again — and she immediately took all of the letters to my dad's nearby office and whipped out answers and had answers back the same day. That knocked them off their feet," said Eddie Phillips.

Using the pseudonym "Abigail Van Buren," Phillips went from housewife to America's counselor in a career that spanned more than four decades. She counted celebrities, presidents, royalty and even a pope among her millions of fans. Her column was syndicated in more than 1,200 newspapers, and read by 95 million people a day.

To letter writers who signed off as "Baffled" and "Ticked Off" and all the millions of others who wrote in, she gave advice on every issue from selfish in-laws to bed-wetting to gun control.

"We're talking about things today we never would have dreamed of talking about 25 years ago," Phillips said in an interview that aired Oct. 12, 1982, on Good Morning America.

A Sign of Awareness

Pauline Phillips has never been told of her Alzheimer's diagnosis — her family and doctors felt hearing the words would be devastating emotionally. But a year and a half ago, a book by Nancy Reagan and an emotional phone call let her son, Eddie, know that his mother understands.

His mother was reading from the book, I Love You, Ronnie, Nancy Reagan's book of love letters between herself and her husband, Ronald Reagan, who now suffers from Alzheimer's.

"She began reading to me, having not had that capacity for some time, or that interest," Eddie Phillips said. His mother read the following passage from the book: "No one can really know what it's like unless they travel this path — and there are many right now traveling the same path I am. You know it's a progressive disease and there is no place to go but down, no light at the end of the tunnel. Every day is different, and you get up, put one foot in front of the other and go and love — just love."

For Eddie Phillips, it was proof that his mother — though changed by Alzheimer's — was still aware.

"I really believe that it was my mom telling me that she understood," he said. "And it was extremely emotional and I didn't want it to end. It was a conversation I shall never ever forget."

He said his mother has a strong recollection of she is and who her family is, but the memories fade in and out.

"But we who love her know which memories are especially important to her and the ones that bring her most joy," Eddie Phillips said. "And we focus on those and the result is a very wide smile and laughter on her part."

Honoring a Mother

As his mother slips further and further away, Eddie Phillips wanted to do something to honor her. A successful businessman in his own right, he and a second, anonymous donor, have given an extraordinary $10 million grant to the Mayo Clinic to create the Abigail Van Buren Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

"We need to recruit a large group of normal elderly individuals who are living in Rochester, Minn., and follow them for the next five, 10, 15 years,to see what happens," said Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the new center. "From that we'll learn not only who's going to develop Alzheimer's disease in the future, but we'll also derive a feeling for who lives successfully through aging."

The study will shed light on the disease, said Dr. Cliff Jack, another member of the research clinic's staff. "It's only with this sort of longitudinal study that you can test, make a measurement of now and then five years from now, what's happened to the patient, go back and see which measurements were and which measurements weren't particularly useful," Jack said.

The ultimate goal is simple, Eddie Phillips said: "To find both a cure and a prevention for Alzheimer's disease and wipe this devastating illness off the map of the world."

In 1964, Dear Abby gave some philosophical advice: "The purpose of life is to amount to something and have it make some difference that you lived at all," she said.

For Eddie Phillips, there is no question in his mind about his mother's impact.

"I believe she made a profound difference in many lives countless times — and if that is the acid test of a good life, she passed with flying colors," he said.

If you want to send a letter of encouragement or thanks to Dear Abby, send letters to: letters@avbthankyou.com or A.V.B.One Main Street SESuite 210Minneapolis, MN 55414

To find out more about Alzheimer's Disease, go to the following links: http://www.mayoclinic.org/alzheimers/index.html