Millions of people have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease, either because they have it or because someone they love does. And yet there is still much stigma surrounding the condition, and many times people like to keep such diagnoses hushed for as long as possible.
More are choosing to speak out about the disease as they realize that though dementia can cause difficulties both personally and socially, keeping it quiet is damaging.
Legendary entertainer Tony Bennett’s family has come forward to speak about his condition, sharing both their struggles and joys as they press on.
It was in 2016 that Bennett, now 94, received the news that he had Alzheimer’s. While the news can be devastating to its victims, Bennett was already in a place that kept him from understanding the diagnosis.
“But that’s because he already didn’t understand,” his wife, Susan Benedetto, told AARP The Magazine in a new profile. “He would ask me, ‘What is Alzheimer’s?’ I would explain, but he wouldn’t get it.
“He’d tell me, ‘Susan, I feel fine.’ That’s all he could process — that, physically, he felt great. So, nothing changed in his life. Anything that did change, he wasn’t aware of.”
Benedetto has done everything within her power to keep her husband healthy, both physically and mentally. He takes regular medications, enjoys a Mediterranean diet (lots of fish, olive oil and vegetables), rehearses his music twice a week, and exercises regularly.
But it’s not easy.
“I have my moments and it gets very difficult,” Benedetto, 54, told AARP. “It’s no fun arguing with someone who doesn’t understand you… But I feel badly talking about it because we are so much more fortunate than so many people with this diagnosis. We have such a good team. [Eldest son] Danny handles Tony’s business affairs. We have great doctors.”
According to his doctor, Gayatri Devi, Bennet has “an amazingly versatile brain,” and while he has “cognitive issues,” “multiple other areas of his brain are still resilient and functioning well.”
“He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do,” she continued. “He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder.”
The doctor has also been impressed with Benedetto’s determination and diligence in her care of her husband.
“I’ve been humbled by the level of devotion,” she said. “She also expects a lot from him. I think her background as a teacher helps, but she’s also very much in love with him. And he rises to her expectations.”
“Susan will say, ‘Tony B! A fan of yours is saying hello!’ And he then turns to the person with his big blues, smiles his smile and says, ‘How are you?’ or ‘Thank you!’ The charisma and magnetism get turned on.”
He was so good at it that he continued to perform until COVID shut things down last March.
“It kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way,” his doctor said.
While it was good for Bennett to keep putting on the show, it terrified Benedetto every time he walked out onto the stage because she had to wonder if this would be the time he forgot a lyric or flubbed something and made his condition apparent.
“I was a nervous frigging wreck,” Benedetto told AARP. “Yet he always delivered!”
Not being able to sing for a crowd anymore and needing to isolate has caused Bennett to take several steps back. His memory and capabilities have suffered, highlighting just how important performing his music had been to his body, mind and soul.
But he can and does still have rehearsals twice a week, and for those brief moments, he’s his old self.
“There’s a lot about him that I miss,” Benedetto admitted. “Because he’s not the old Tony anymore … But when he sings, he’s the old Tony.”
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