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Nancy Reagan Viewed as 'Model' for Alzheimer's Caregivers - 2004-06-09

It was 10 years ago when Ronald Reagan shared with the American public that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. From then on, his wife, Nancy, cared for him and became an advocate for research to cure the debilitating brain disorder.

In a letter to the nation, former President Ronald Reagan said in November 1994 that he hoped going public about his disease would promote greater awareness of Alzheimer's. He said he wished he could spare his wife from the painful experience and expressed the hope she could face it with "faith and courage."

Ten years later, many agree she has done just that. Kathleen O'Brien, senior vice president of the Alzheimer's Association says Nancy Reagan represents a model for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients around the world.

"I think that all of us would stand in awe at her strength and her courage and her ability to stand beside her husband and with her husband during a very, very difficult time," she said.

It has been a time that Mrs. Reagan has described as tiring and frustrating, as she explained a few years ago.

"We have learned, as too many other families have learned, of the terrible pain and loneliness that must be endured as each day brings another reminder of this very long goodbye," Mrs. Reagan said.

Alzheimer's disease gradually destroys a person's memory and ability to think, communicate and carry out daily activities. About 4.5 million Americans have the disorder, which takes a large toll on loved ones, who the victims often fail to even recognize in the later stages.

Last month, Nancy Reagan told an audience at a fundraiser for stem cell research that her husband was in a distant place where she could no longer reach him. But she added that she is determined to do whatever she can to save other families from the pain hers has suffered.

That effort has included lobbying Congress to get legislation passed to expand stem cell research.

Stem cells are immature cells that can develop into all other cell types. Some scientists want more government funding to be able to use stem cells from human embryos to seek ways to repair damaged tissues, believing the research could someday cure diseases such as Alzheimer's. But the research is opposed by those who believe taking stem cells from human embryos is taking human life.

In 2001, President Bush limited government-funded research to about 60 existing stem cell lines, and prohibited funding to create new lines. He said embryonic stem cell research offers both great promise and great peril.

"[And] while we must devote enormous energy to conquering disease, it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research," Mr. Bush said. ?Even the most noble ends do not justify any means."

Kathleen O'Brien from the Alzheimer's Association says so far, Nancy Reagan's efforts have done more than increase awareness about the disease.

"Well, certainly it has generated a great deal of interest in stem cell research, and certainly it looks like there may be some changing in the policy on that issue and people are continuing to explore that as perhaps a scientific interest," she said.

Close friends of the former first lady agree that Nancy Reagan will continue her fight against Alzheimer's, perhaps harder now than ever before. The New York Times newspaper quotes a close friend as saying that when Mrs. Reagan gets her body and heart back together, she will be working feverishly for stem cell research, in hopes for a cure to Alzheimer's disease.