In the 1970s David Cassidy was a singer, Partridge Family actor and teen idol who inspired teenage girls to tape posters of him on their bedroom wall, or don the coveted silk baseball-style jacket with his image on back. Fast-forward to today, and Cassidy is still performing on music tours and Broadway. But he's also a spokesperson for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation. He travels around the nation to tell his personal story about his mother's dementia and how it changed his life forever. He wants to raise awareness about the debilitating disease, but equally important, he says, is to acknowledge people who take care of parents with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, and the daily struggle of watching a parent's decline.
AgingCare.com spoke with Cassidy about his work with the Alzheimer's and dementia organizations, his role as a caregiver, and the night that changed his life forever.
A caregiver overnight
Like so many, Cassidy didn't pay much attention to the first signs of dementia: his mother couldn't remember names as well. But living in a different state, he wasn't aware of his mother's true mental decline. She was married to a wonderful man who loved her. When Cassidy would call weekly to check-in, his mom, in her early 80s, would often rush off the phone. So Cassidy would talk to her husband, who assured Cassidy that everything was fine. When his mother's husband passed, Cassidy learned the truth.
For Cassidy, it happened overnight; his mother's dementia had been progressing for a while. Shortly after her husband's death – less than a few months – Cassidy got a call from a friend of his mother saying his mom wouldn't answer the phone and hadn't been doing well lately.
Cassidy planned a visit, but less than 48 hours after the first call he got another, this time from the police, in the middle of the night. His mother was found in the street in her nightgown, crying. They took her to an Alzheimer's care hospital. At that moment, Cassidy realized how much her husband had been covering for his mom. Cassidy believes his mother's husband hid the truth because in his generation, dementia was called "senile," which meant "crazy." It was something to be ashamed of.
Cassidy's mother had been in the depths of dementia for months or possibly years before he found out. As his mother's only son (his mother's siblings had died), long-distance caregiving fell squarely on Cassidy's shoulders.
Cassidy immediately got on a plane. When he saw his mother, he felt pure shock. His mother was angry. She didn't know why she was in the hospital. She wanted to go home. To 23 Elm Street. That home was where the family had lived when Cassidy was a child. They hadn't lived there in decades. Her New Jersey accent – which she'd lost years ago after moving out of the area – was once again prevalent.
Finding senior housing
The hunt began for a place that could care for his mother. They spent days touring housing that specialized in Alzheimer's and dementia care. Cassidy found one that he and his mom liked. He moved in items that had been special to this mother throughout her life: family photos, a favorite dresser, her makeup table. He feels comfortable that his mom is well-cared for and Cassidy visits as often as he can.
The Alzheimer's and dementia care skilled nursing facility has two stages, or areas, for residents. Level 1 is for people who can talk and walk. They are losing mental capabilities, but are able to assist in their own care. Level 2 is a safe locked-door area for people in advanced stages of the disease. Cassidy's mom spent three years in Level 1. She now lives in Level 2.
Cassidy's mother, actress Evelyn Ward, was on television shows like Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason and Ben Casey, and performed in more than 20 Broadway shows from the late 1940s to the 60s.
When Cassidy thinks back, he feels deep sadness. "Mom was a wonderful signer, actress and dancer. So full of life. To watch someone who raised you who was so vibrant is the most painful thing I ever experienced. At that moment, I broke down. I couldn't control my weeping for days and nights."
Speaking without words
While two-way conversations are very limited, Cassidy says there are times when he's sure his mother knows him. "When I walk into the room and kiss her, a tear rolls down her face." Even though she can't speak back, Cassidy tells her how much he loves her, how beautiful she still is, how good it feels to hold her hand.
When grandson Beau visited (Cassidy has a son and daughter) he had an overwhelmingly emotional experience. "My son had an incredible connection with his nana. When he went to visit, she recognized him. They spent a long time just looking at each other, crying, loving, caring."
Spreading the word about dementia
Because of his experiences with dementia for 10 years, Cassidy realized he could impact millions of people, including caregivers, with his story. "I wanted to use my notoriety to put myself in a position to help others. I wanted to educate and tell my story."
He approached several Alzheimer's and dementia organizations who jumped at the chance to have Cassidy as a spokesperson. Today, he does speaking engagements nationwide. He tells the hard facts: the last of the baby boomers are nearing retirement. People are living longer, with advancements in healthcare, medical research, and pharmaceuticals that keep people alive for years. "Even with new Alzheimer's and dementia care facilities being built, they won't have the manpower to handle what will soon be an epidemic," Cassidy says.
In addition to the dementia facts, Cassidy speaks directly to caregivers. "For all the caregivers, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without you, your elderly relative could not possibly survive."
Cassidy says, "I want caregivers to know how vital they are, how brave and strong they are. They are important and special to me."
Life doesn't stop for dementia
Show business has been part of Cassidy's life since he was 19, when the Partridge Family first aired. Today he's still involved in the business. He's produced a television series; he's starring in Blood Brothers on Broadway and continues to tour with his band. "I have a tremendously loyal fan base. I love doing what I do now more than I ever did. I have so much more appreciation for life than I did in my 20s." On top of his career commitments, and continuing on the speaking circuit for the Alzheimer's and dementia organizations, Cassidy visits his mom as often as he can.
When she moved to senior housing, she wanted to remain near her home and her friends, but due to his career and travel commitments, Cassidy lives thousands of miles away. Despite the distance, he makes it a point to visit his mother at least once a month. "Family is most important. The travel schedule can get crazy, but spending time with my mom is at the top of my list of priorities."