Pauline Phillips, the woman you probably all know as Dear Abby and who wrote under the name Abigail Van Buren, was never afraid to bring tough topics into public discussion. Alzheimer’s disease was no exception.
In 1980, long before her own diagnosis with this devastating disease, she brought dementia into the spotlight when she published a letter from a woman who had recently learned her 60-year-old husband had Alzheimer’s.
The woman, who signed her letter “Desperate in New York,” wanted guidance on how to cope. She felt isolated and helpless. She needed information.
Dear Abby’s reply began, “You are not alone.”
And she wasn’t. At the time, it was felt that Alzheimer’s disease was a major epidemic in the United States. Today, it is estimated to afflict more than 5 million people.
Dear Abby directed her to the Alzheimer’s Association, a newly formed group that came together to assist people with the disease and their families, raise awareness, advocate for state and federal help, and increase government funding for research in hopes of finding treatments and a cure. My personal involvement with the Association resulted from the fact that my father, three of his brothers and two of his sisters died from Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, in 2012 one of my cousins died from this disease.
At the time Dear Abby wrote to ‘Desperate in New York,” I was president of the New York Chapter as well as secretary/treasurer of the National Alzheimer’s Association. The national headquarters were run out of my law office in New York City, and my staff and I were fielding calls for information and referrals.
Within two weeks of the Dear Abby column being published, we were inundated with more than 22,000 pieces of mail requesting information. Dear Abby put Alzheimer’s disease in the public spotlight and put the Alzheimer’s Association on the map.
In the years to come, Mrs. Phillips continued to raise Alzheimer’s awareness, publishing numerous Dear Abby columns that connected those needing support to Association resources. Then, 15 years after first bringing the topic to readers across the globe, Mrs. Phillips – a woman known for her strong intellect and straight-talk – began showing signs of the disease.
Yesterday, after living with Alzheimer’s for more than a decade, she passed away at the age of 94.
Mrs. Phillips once wrote: “The purpose of life is to amount to something and have it make some difference that you lived at all.”
When Alzheimer’s disease finally becomes a distant memory, when a cure is discovered, Mrs. Phillips will be right on top of the list of people who humankind will owe it’s gratitude for ridding the world of this terrible disease.
The difference she made is profound. By encouraging people to talk and providing information when it was needed, she changed lives. She let those living with Alzheimer’s know they aren’t alone. By spreading awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, she helped enable the Alzheimer’s Association to get public funds to help and support families, educate caregivers, and increase the research budget from about 2 million in 1980 to more than 450 million today.
I wish to express my personal condolences to the family and appreciation to Mrs. Phillips for everything she has done to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease. May she rest in peace.
About the Blog Author: Lonnie Wollin is an attorney in New York and one of the founders of the Alzheimer’s Association. He remains actively involved with the organization.