Byline: Paul Hendrickson
Credit: Washington Post
SO CHICAGO SUN-TIMES (CHI)
Edition: FIVE STAR SPORTS FINAL
Section: SECTION 2; FEATURES
LP WASHINGTON Fate has some cruel sorrows in its quiver, and the story of Rita Hayworth, who slid from sex goddess to Alzheimer's victim inside of three decades, is one of them. The way Hollywood and life devoured Marilyn Monroe is a better known parable, but it can't be any more wounding than this one. Listen to her daughter talk, a daughter who nursed her mother in her own Manhattan apartment until she died two years ago. The daughter's * name is Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Jeffries, and she is nearly 40 years old and remarkably beautiful in several senses of that word.
TX Rita Hayworth was about 40 years old when she began to go down in a way that told you there would never be any coming up again. Listen: "It was the outbursts. She'd fly into a rage. I can't tell you. I thought it was alcoholism - alcoholic dementia. You can't imagine the relief just in getting a diagnosis. We had a name at last, Alzheimer's! Of course, that didn't really come until the last seven or eight years. She wasn't diagnosed as an Alzheimer's until 1980. There were two decades of hell before that. "It was so many little things in the beginning. She'd shuffle her feet. She'd fiddle with her hands. She'd get so incredibly agitated. The paranoia, her mood swings. Something in her gaze. I think it's there in `Separate Tables.' I can see it. What is the date of that movie, late '50s? "Maybe she'd reorganize her closets - over and over, obsessively. I kept wondering why her clothes were ending up in my closets. I was just a girl. It was almost funny. I can go back and all of it connects now. Oh, yes, and throwing the food out of the cupboards, I mean, just going through the refrigerator and the cupboards and pitching everything out. "It was just so horrible to watch. She had to know. She had to know her mind was being robbed. After she was dead I went through her things and found a book about losing your mind. She'd look at someone and say, `I know you, I know you.' Her brain just couldn't find it. "It was so frustrating. I'd listen to the rage. I'd just let it burn out. I'd just wait until it was over. It was all you could do." "It's such a humiliating disease - for everyone. The family feels so helpless. And we've been ignorant about it as a country. All I ever wanted to do was to give Rita Hayworth peace in her last years. I suppose that's part of why I used to bring my son Andrew into her room when she was dying. Because who knows what was happening with her neuro-transmitters. I want to think there was something there. I'd bring Andrew in and put him on the bed. He was just a 1-year-old then, and he'd crawl around on her bed. I want to believe that on some level my mom knew who he was, knew someone was there." Statistics won't tell the story, but here are several: Alzheimer's disease, or AD as it is now commonly being called, is a progressive, degenerative illness of the brain that is the fourth leading cause of death for American adults. Most of the time, not always, its victims are people in advanced age. Rita Hayworth died of it at 68, but she had some form of the illness in her body, in her head, for decades. The literary doctor Lewis Thomas has spoken of AD as "the disease of the century" - and this in the age of that other unfathomable thing, AIDS. One out of every three American families is now thought to have an Alzheimer's victim in its midst, incipient or otherwise. The illness is costing the country $88 billion annually, but just $120 million of public funds is being allocated to combat it. An American family spends an average of $25,000 a year caring for its AD victim; almost no public or private or insurance reimbursements currently exist to help. Yes, if you spend your savings down to the bone, you can qualify for Medicaid, that's about the only way. Rita Hayworth's daughter has a professionally trained lyric coloratura's voice. She gave up that career to care for her mother. "I couldn't do both," she says. "Just couldn't. I believe this whole Alzheimer's, this whole degeneration, my mother's struggle, was far more important than my singing career. And I made the shift. I just did it." And then: "I did it because I cared for her. Because I loved her." Does she worry that she will get the disease? "Yes. Yes. I worry about it all the time." "I don't remember the Hayworth of `Gilda.' I remember the Hayworth of `Circus World.' But that's all right. I was on the set. `Pal Joey' too. I look at those movies, even some of the later ones, and I'm so very proud of my mother." * @Art: Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Jeffries (left) recalls the sad toll of Alzheimer's on her mother, Rita Hayworth (photo from November, 1977). @Art Credit: United Press International
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