In the 1970s, David Cassidy was a singer, an actor on The Partridge Family and a teen idol who inspired teenage girls to tape posters of him on their bedroom walls and don silk jackets with his image on the back. Fast-forward to today, and Cassidy is still performing on music tours and Broadway. 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 this debilitating condition. An equally important objective of his is acknowledging the people who take care of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
AgingCare.com spoke with Cassidy about his work with Alzheimer’s and dementia organizations, his role as a caregiver and the night that changed his life forever.
A Caregiver Overnight
Like so many family caregivers, Cassidy didn’t pay much attention to his mother’s first signs of dementia. His 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. Ward’s difficulties seemed trivial initially; she merely had trouble remembering names.
Cassidy lived in a different state at the time and wasn’t aware of the extent of his mother’s mental decline. When Cassidy called each week to check in, his mom, then in her early 80s, would often rush off the phone. Instead, he would talk to her husband, who assured Cassidy that everything was fine. When Ward’s husband passed away in 2005, Cassidy learned the truth about her condition.
The reality of the situation struck overnight. It turns out that his mother’s dementia had been progressing for a while. Shortly after her husband’s death, Cassidy got a call from a friend of Ward’s saying his mom wasn’t answering the phone and hadn’t been doing well lately.
Cassidy immediately planned a visit, but less than 48 hours after the first call he got another. This one was from the police in the middle of the night. His mother was found wandering 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 her. He believes Ward’s husband hid the severity of her condition because to their generation, dementia was referred to as senility, which was synonymous with being “crazy.” Back then, 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 an only child, caregiving fell squarely on his shoulders.
Cassidy hopped on a plane, and when he saw his mother, he felt pure shock. She was angry. She didn’t know why she was in the hospital, and she wanted to go home to 23 Elm Street. That was the address of the home where the family had lived decades ago when Cassidy was a child. Ward’s New Jersey accent, which she’d lost years after moving out of the area, was once again prevalent.
Finding Senior Housing
Cassidy wasted no time and began searching for a new home for his mother. They spent days touring senior living facilities that specialized in Alzheimer’s and dementia care. Cassidy found one memory care community that he and his mom liked. He moved in items that had been special to Ward throughout her life, like family photos, a favorite dresser and her makeup table. He feels comfortable that his mom is well cared for, and he visits as often as he can.
Ward’s Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility has two areas for residents. Level 1 is for those who are ambulatory and can speak. These residents are losing their mental capabilities but are still able to assist in their own care to a certain extent. Level 2 is a safe, secure area for people in advanced stages of the disease. Cassidy’s mother spent three years living in Level 1 care, and she now resides in Level 2.
When Cassidy thinks back, he feels deep sadness. “Mom was a wonderful signer, actress and dancer. She was so full of life,” he recalls. “To watch the decline of someone who raised you, who was so vibrant, is the most painful thing I have ever experienced.”
Speaking Without Words
While two-way conversations with his mother are very limited, Cassidy says there are times when he’s sure she knows him. “When I walk into the room and kiss her, a tear rolls down her face,” he says. Even though she can’t speak back, Cassidy tells her how much he loves her, how beautiful she still is and how good it feels to hold her hand.
When Cassidy brought his son Beau to visit his grandmother, the entire family had an overwhelmingly emotional experience. “Beau had an incredible connection with his nana,” Cassidy remembers. “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
After more than a decade of experience with dementia and long-distance caregiving, Cassidy realized he could impact millions of people, including caregivers, with his story. “I wanted to use my notoriety to help others. I wanted to educate others and tell my story,” he stresses.
He approached several Alzheimer’s and dementia organizations that jumped at the chance to have him as a spokesperson. Today, he does speaking engagements across the country and shares hard facts with the public. The last of the baby boomers are nearing retirement. People are living longer due to advancements in healthcare, medical research and pharmaceutical innovations. “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 warns.
Cassidy also makes a point of speaking directly to dementia caregivers. “To all the caregivers, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without you, your elderly relatives could not possibly survive,” he acknowledges. “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 The Partridge Family first aired when he was 19 years old, and he’s still involved in the business today. He has produced a television series, is 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,” Cassidy admits. “I have so much more appreciation for life than I did in my 20s.” On top of his performances and appearances on the speaking circuit for Alzheimer’s and dementia organizations, Cassidy visits his mom as often as he can.
He still lives thousands of miles away, but he makes a point of visiting his mother at least once a month. “Family is most important,” Cassidy emphasizes. “The travel schedule can get crazy, but spending time with my mom is at the top of my list of priorities.”
Editor’s Note: Evelyn Ward passed away on December 23, 2012. She was 89 years old. David Cassidy announced in February 2017 that he had also been diagnosed with dementia, and he retired from performing shortly afterwards. In November of that year, Cassidy was hospitalized for liver and kidney failure. He died a few days later on November 21, 2017, at age 67.