Dear Abby A Guiding Light For People Facing Alzheimer’s Long Before Own Diagnosis

The indie-rock band Noah & the Whale sings, “What you share with this world is what it keeps of you.”

This particular lyric comes to mind when I consider the great efforts of a tremendous individual who has recently passed. Pauline Phillips, the woman you likely know as Dear Abby, and wrote under the name Abigail Van Buren, was a major advocate for, and offered guidance to those affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

(Related: Trying to Understand Alzheimer’s Memory Loss)

Long before her own diagnosis with this devastating disease that today, is estimated to afflict more than 5 million people, Phillips brought dementia into the national spotlight after publishing 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,” was cast into darkness, and searched for a lighthouse in the form of guidance in a time where it wasn’t readily available. She felt isolated and helpless, until Phillips found her in the dark.

(Related: Genetic Predisposition to Alzheimer’s? To know, or not to know…)

Phillips’ reply began, “You are not alone.”

Even when we’re not alone, worry and doubt has a convincing way of making us feel like we are stranded in deep water, without shore in sight. At the time, it was believed that Alzheimer’s was a major epidemic in the United States.

Phillips directed her to the Alzheimer’s Association, a then-recently formed group created to assists 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.

At the time Phillips wrote to “Desperate in New York,” the national headquarters of the Alzheimer’s Association were run out of New York City. Within two weeks of the Dear Abby column being published, the office was flooded with more than 22,000 pieces of mail requesting information. Phillips put Alzheimer’s disease in the public spotlight and with it, the Alzheimer’s Association on the map.

(Related: Planning for People with Alzheimer’s Disease: Part 1)

But she did not stop there. Phillips continued to raise Alzheimer’s awareness, publishing a number of Dear Abby columns that connected those needing support to available Association resources. Fifteen years after illuminating Alzheimer’s with the national spotlight, Phillips began showing signs of the disease.

After living with the disease for more than a decade, Phillips passed away recently at the age of 94.

She once wrote: “The purpose of life is to amount to something and have it make some difference that you lived at all.”

Phillips is a profound example of the power of one; the difference a single person can make in the grand-landscape of life. By offering a helping hand to those drowning in darkness and doubt, she changed lives and let those living with Alzheimer’s know that they aren’t alone. Her advocacy for Alzheimer’s awareness helped the Alzheimer’s Association acquire public funds to support families, educate caregivers, and increase the research budget from about 2 million in 1980 to more than 450 million today.

(Related: Planning for People with Alzheimer’s Disease: Part 2)

In her passing the memory of her kindness endures in the form of a burning candle light that will offer hope to those who struggle to navigate the darkness that is disease and doubt. Rest in peace.

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