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CBS correspondent tells of his wife's early slide into Alzheimer's

Barry Petersen met KIRO anchor Jan Chorlton and found love. His powerful new book tells of her long decline from early-onset Alzheimer's.
Barry Petersen tells the story of his wife, Jan, in his new book. The cover features a picture of them.

Barry Petersen tells the story of his wife, Jan, in his new book. The cover features a picture of them. Cover art/courtesy of Barry Petersen

It was during a warm summer weekend in Tokyo in 2005 when Barry Petersen first noticed that something was terribly wrong. The warning signs were not immediately evident. His wife, Jan, 55, was healthy and in excellent physical condition, a talented broadcast journalist with CNN, ABC, and CBS News.

Jan tried to cook hamburgers, he recalled. She used a deep pot as a frying pan and turned up the stove to maximum heat. Her sentences were jumbled. Then, she started having hallucinations and often looked at him with a long intense stare.

Worried, he phoned a neurologist in San Francisco at 4 a.m. one morning. After describing the symptoms to the doctor, Petersen finally heard the heart-breaking words: “She has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.” Thus began a tortuous journey for a couple in the prime of their lives. As Petersen, an award-winning CBS News correspondent, recalls in his new book, Jan’s Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer's:

“Together we built a life, made friends, hunted for treasures in antique stores, traveled, and loved the new experiences. Our lives made sense. And then with the coming of The Disease, all of that was taken away and in its place was unpredictability, and loss."

As is often the case with early-onset Alzheimer's, outwardly Jan seemed normal, lived an active life, was a voracious reader, and always upbeat and vivacious. Ironically, she came from a family many of whose members lived beyond ninety. As Petersen described her in a recent interview with Crosscut:

“Jan was a beacon of optimism. She was lively and outgoing. I tend towards gloomy and reticent. Whatever happened, she helped me keep my balance.” Both met in Seattle when Jan Chorlton was a KIRO-TV news anchor. Shortly after their initial encounter, both fell in love and were married in 1985. Twenty years later, she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The Petersens lived an exciting, globetrotting life together, as Barry was posted in Tokyo, Beijing, London, and Moscow covering such far-flung assignments as Iraq, Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, the Rwanda genocide and refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Jan was a radio stringer for CBS News. Despite his frequent, sometimes lengthy absences, however, both found time to enjoy their lives overseas.

In retrospect, Petersen laments the fact that he didn't notice the signs of short-term memory loss earlier: “As time went by, denial was a much crafted, much practiced art for us both. The symptoms were piling up," he writes. "That is what denial does … it robs us of the moments that might have been."

From the earliest detection of Jan’s short-term memory loss, 15 years would elapse before her final diagnosis. “She was changing, literally in front of me," Petersen writes. She began losing interest in people, withdrawing from social activities, her normally vibrant demeanor gone. “Her confidence and drive to succeed were ebbing away like a quiet midnight tide.”

Thrust into the exhausting role of 24/7 caregiver, Petersen began to face the crush of work and caregiving, often finding the balance mind numbing and depleting. As he slowly began to learn, there is no training or manual for the Alzheimer’s caregiver. At present 10 million people in the U.S. are unpaid caregivers. By 2050, when Alzheimer’s Disease sufferers triple to a projected 16 million, that number will hit 32 million.

Barry wasn't able to focus at work, often experiencing uncontrollable rage, while coping with anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. "I was simply exhausted," he writes, and constantly on "red alert." "It was a treadmill. I was on emotional overload."

As Petersen eventually realized, caregiving can be a life-threatening endeavor. Chronic stress can shorten caregivers' lives. Indeed, studies have shown that caregivers between 66 to 96 years old have a 63 percent higher mortality. "Caregiving for a loved one can kill you," Petersen writes, "and caregivers often die before the person with Alzheimer's."


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Aug 5, 4:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for this article - so candid, and beautifully written. There is a documentary film we saw recently called "I Remember Better When I Paint" which is about Alzheimer's and how the creative arts help individuals with Alzheimer's open doors to communications and rebuild quality of life. The film features doctors who speak about the disease and how emotions are intact all the way to the end. So when you wrote Jan said "don't forget me", it reminded me of the film. In the film is a segment with a man named Skip who early onset Alzheimer's and his wife, seeing the film really help for me to better understand the face of Alzheimer's, and how courageous caregivers are. Your article has also inspired me.

susandee

Posted Thu, Aug 5, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

I found this article immensely moving. One part in particular caught my attention: the apparent freedom felt by certain friends and acquaintances of the author to hurtfully judge his decision to move his wife into an assisted living arrangement. I am puzzled by his friends' lack of imaginative sympathy, their haste in judging others, their willingness to condemn. If anything, the author deserves respect and deep encouragement as he makes his fundamentally lonely journey through a most difficult fate. I know I would vey much want and need such respect and encouragement if I were to find myself in his shoes someday.

Lisa Kane

LisaKane

Posted Wed, Aug 11, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Very well written. My mother has Alzheimer's, so I understand, but it is much more difficult with Early Onset Alzheimer's. Like a double-whammy.

lacquer

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