MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things people usually keep private. And today, we want to talk about something that affects millions of people. It's dementia. It's a disease of the brain that affects mood and memory. It's most commonly associated with aging and Alzheimer's disease and it affects some five million people, according to the National Institutes of Health.
And it's often something people struggle with privately or try to keep close to home, but one public official recently took a different approach. He is Rushern Baker. He's the county executive for Prince George's County, Maryland. His wife Christa Beverly was diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2010 and he decided to reveal that to constituents and the public at large in a lengthy profile in the Washington Post this July.
And Rushern Baker is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.
RUSHERN BAKER: Glad to be here for this important discussion, Michel.
MARTIN: When did you start to notice that something wasn't quite right?
BAKER: Probably about somewhere around 2008. My children, my daughters - they were on a trip with my wife and we knew something was wrong, but not clear anything major. Just little things, forgetful. But I was away on a business trip and my middle child, my middle daughter, called me and was in tears and so she explained to me that she and her mom and her sister had gone to Richmond, where my wife is from, to visit her parents, and they got lost. And my wife was very upset and she was crying and so my daughter said, there's something wrong. This is just not right.
At that point, I decided that I would take her to see my doctor, and I actually had to trick her to go to my doctor, who was a family friend we'd known since we were both at Howard. And so, in the midst of him examining me, I said, you know, my wife's been trying to get in to her doctor, couldn't get an appointment. Could you do us a favor and just give her a checkup? He's, like, great. And he was in on what I wanted him to do.
Well, once he did the examination, he came back and he said, she's fine. She's healthy, but there's something that's not quite right. I said, what do you mean? He said, you know, my wife is always very, very sharp and he said, she's like a second off on answering questions, which was unusual for her. And he insisted that we go see a neurologist and we did. They ran some tests, came back negative. I went and told our family doctor. He said, my gut tells me something's wrong. And he insisted over the next two years that I continue to go see and have her checked out.
So, after many tests and initially what we thought was depression, it finally turned out, in 2010, when I was about to run for County Executive for the third time, that it finally came back. She was diagnosed with early onset of dementia.
MARTIN: Did she think something was wrong?
BAKER: Well, you know, it's interesting. Now that I look back, clearly, she knew something was wrong because what she started to do - and I only discovered this after she was diagnosed - is she started to put everything, our financial issues, in order so that I could easily read them. This is, you know, a woman who's a lawyer, worked on Capitol Hill, worked for Bill Gray when he was the Whip and in charge of appropriations, so very, very detail-oriented. And she started leaving me notes on what to do.
She also started ordering a lot of mind games to keep you sharp, so - and she and my daughter would do a lot of crossword puzzles and math games.
MARTIN: How did it feel when you finally got that diagnosis? I mean, you could see where you might feel two things at once. On the one hand, you both might feel - the whole family might feel some relief. On the other hand, I mean, your wife is not that old and a lot of people associate dementia with advanced age. But, for somebody in their 50s...
BAKER: She was 50 when we finally got the...
MARTIN: Fifty? Early 50s. I mean, that must be a blow. How did it sit with you when you first heard?
BAKER: It was painful on several fronts. One is I actually sat in the room when they were giving her the exam, which basically is a series of questions, and here is a woman who graduated with honors from Howard University, got scholarship to William and Mary to law school and she couldn't tell the doctor what show she had watched that morning. It was painful to watch her and it was also painful because she would look to me to help her out and, clearly, I could not, and that made her frustrated.
And so, once he had finished, he matter of factly said to us, she has dementia. You know, my heart sank and my wife looked at him like he was crazy. Literally, got mad and said, he is crazy. Let's go. And she walked out and I was talking to the doctor and he gave me a prescription of what to do and - but it was hard to function afterwards. And the really I guess sad part at that point for me that's kind of, you know, made it all sink in was 15 minutes after the conversations he had told her this news she didn't realize she had been to the doctors or been told that, you know, she had dementia.
MARTIN: You faced a really difficult decision. You mentioned that you were just about to run for county executive, and that's a position that you had sought eagerly. You had run two times before. It was believed that for whatever reasons, the stars were aligned that this was the best time and you were well-positioned to run. Did you consider not running?
BAKER: I did. And in fact, I talked to my wife's doctor and I said, you know, I'm not sure I can do this. Interestingly enough, her doctor quite frankly said you don't have to win but you got to run. And I said, well, what do you mean? And her doctor, it was - he had been very politically active and said, your political life, you're changing - my wife is very socially conscious - so making the county better and making the world better was part of her mission and she saw this as us doing this as a family, which we had always done, all the political runs. He said so if you don't run she'll be sitting at home. She likes going to events with you. And he said you can't take that away until we find something. This is making her life meaningful. She feels like she is making a difference. And on top of that, if you don't run and she knows you really want to be county executive, how do you explain it to her that you're not running? Because, you know, my wife can tell when people are lying right away. So pretty much he was, like, you got to do it. So...
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Behind Closed Doors conversation with Rushern Baker. He's the county executive of Prince George's County, Maryland. And he recently went public with his wife's diagnosis of dementia earlier this summer. It was something they had been addressing privately.
At some point you really had to start telling constituents what was going on, or potential voters, you know, what was going on. How did you go about doing that? I mean...
BAKER: The thing about early onset is the person looks the same. If you saw my wife today - and you know my wife - she's gorgeous, she looks absolutely, she's in the best shape of her life - other than a five-minute conversation you couldn't tell there was something wrong. You can tell now, but at the point we were running, you couldn't really tell. But if you had known her for years, you know, how intense she is and so that intensity was gone.
As the administration wore on, you know, two years rolled around, it was clear that she was becoming less and less able to not only carry on a conversation but to function in a very public arena. And so I got together with our children and I said now we don't have to say what your mother has, but we have to make a public statement that she can no longer carry on those duties that she had done in the past. And I said to the kids, you know, I'm going to make a statement that says the first lady is sick and for health reasons she is going to step back.
The three of them had a discussion among themselves and they said, no, we want to tell people what she has, which I thought was pretty brave, more braver than I am. And it was because they said one, we're not ashamed of the disease and, you know, it's nothing she did to bring it about and we want people who are going through the same thing to know that there's other folks out there. Because we felt like as soon as we got the diagnosis we are on our own.
MARTIN: Public officials often face this dilemma of how much to share. You know, it's one thing when it's them - a personal health condition that you are having - but when it's a family member, there's often this question of how - doesn't that person have some right to privacy? And then constituents do want to know, like, I'm thinking about the fact that, for example, when early in his first term the governor of Massachusetts, Duval Patrick, his wife was struggling with depression. And that moment comes when you have to decide to go public.
How do you feel about it now, now that you decided that you did want to tell the truth about it for all the reasons you describe? How do you feel now?
BAKER: Well, I think it's the right decision. I think, I mean, a lot of people have come up to me and said thank you for doing this, you're brave and I reminded me it was my kids and they're very brave. But it also for the kids, it was we want to do something. It became clear to us as a family that there were very few options for people out there. And if as county executive of a major jurisdiction I don't have options, what are other folks out there doing?
MARTIN: That does lead me to the question that I'm sure you've thought about, which is that, you know, being county executive - for people who don't know, I mean Prince George's County, Maryland has, what? About 900,000 residents.
MARTIN: It's larger than some states. I think for people outside the area, it's home of a large black-middle class population, one of the largest in the country. But it's also a group of people that have been very heavily affected by the downturn, you know, with sub-prime mortgages and all other issues. There's some crime issues too in a lot of areas that are very familiar for people in inner-city neighborhoods; they're there as well. You've gone from being kind of a candidate to caregiver to chief executive...
MARTIN: ...in the same period of time. How do you do it all?
BAKER: You know, the first year I was in office was not as bad as it could have been. And the main reason was I had a very smart 17-year-old at home who had pretty much seen the progression along with me the whole entire time. Our older children were off at college. You know, I would come home for lunch, I would take my wife to events that I could take her to - not trying to, you know, to keep her out too long, and then my daughter would come in at 4:30, would watch her until I got home, maybe about seven or eight. But it was clear as it was progressing that we could no longer do that or especially my daughter who was about to graduate from high school. And I wanted her to have a normal high school life, as normal as I could make it.
MARTIN: But you're also, your job is not like other jobs where you just go home at five o'clock and it's done. I mean it is a 24-hour job, a seven day a week job. There are events every single day that people want you to go to. Even if it's a birthday party, they oftentimes people want you there.
BAKER: Yeah, I have to tell you. There were a couple of during that first administration, that first year - as you talked about some of the challenges of Prince George's County - the first month of January in the first, in the new administration we had 14 murders in 14 days. We had a hurricane, an earthquake, snowstorm. We had every major disaster you could think of, and all the while that was happening, I had, you know, the progression of this disease at home.
You know, I'm blessed, though. I have great support staff and I had great kids, so we were able to do it. When it came time to the point where I didn't feel like we could handle it ourselves as an internal family, once again I brought the kids together and said we've got to make a major decision. We need someone to come in during the day with your mom to help us out. So that means a financial decision but it also means an emotional one. It's an admitting of mommy isn't going to get better, which was very hard to do with the kids - especially the girls - and say it's not going to change and it's only going to get worse. But we made that decision is a family.
We brought in a caregiver during the day and that relieves some of the pressures. And so the way we function now is somebody is with my wife. On the days where I, you know, can take her to functions, I take her. Usually what I try to do is - now that I'm approaching two years in the administration - is I try to get Fridays off and Sundays so that we can be together. That's not always possible but, you know, anybody who is a caregiver out there and just think, you know, I'm in a situation where I said, you know, I've got a lot of support.
There are people who do this who are caregivers and they are single parents, they are single children, you know, so the that there's no other sibling and they are working a nine to five and they're going home and they're giving care. And if anybody who have done care giving for anyone - not just for dementia - knows that it's not, you know, four hours. It's some nights you don't get any sleep and it's very draining.
MARTIN: Are you concerned that political opponents will use this against you - to say you're just not fully focused on the job?
BAKER: Well, clearly, you know, people will ask: Are you going to run again? And I've been asked that before and I've answered it the way I think my wife would want me to answer it. And that is, we got in here to change things in the county and until those things are changed it is our intention to run. But I think part of the reason that, you know, God has given us this platform to, as county executive, to change things. Part of that is healthcare. And clearly, this is a disease like others that in care giving or something that I'm in a unique position to talk about and to actually do some things to help - not only bring attention but to bring resources. And, you know, the politics of it will play itself out.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any final words of wisdom for people who are on this journey, too?
BAKER: I would say this, get help in terms of for care givers. Keep yourself physically healthy. You know, we need to make sure we are seeing our doctor. And that's what I would say. And lastly, I would just say this. You know, I'm blessed. I had a great, and have a great partner who has taken care of me and my family for 30 years. And if God blesses me, I'll take care of her for 30 years.
MARTIN: Rushern Baker is the county executive for Prince George's County, Maryland. He was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Mr. Baker, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAKER: Thank you for having me.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Before we go, though, we'd like to welcome WVGN in U.S. Virgin Islands. They started carrying our program today. And, yes, we all want to visit. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.