- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

William Proxmire doesn't recall his nearly 32 years of service on Capitol Hill as a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.
He doesn't remember issuing the 75 or so "Golden Fleece" awards to expose government waste.
Mr. Proxmire, 87, resides at Copper Ridge, a long-term care facility in Sykesville, Md.
Like about half of all older Americans in nursing homes today, Mr. Proxmire is there because he has Alzheimer's disease.
"As brilliant as my husband was … nothing he says now makes sense anymore," the former senator's wife, Ellen, 78, said in an interview.
Mr. Proxmire was not nearly so impaired when he publicly disclosed his illness in March 1998, nine years after leaving the Senate.
"I can't remember what I've read," Mr. Proxmire said at the time. "Sometimes I can't remember where I am, although it doesn't happen very often."
Mrs. Proxmire said her husband was diagnosed formally in 1994. That was the same year former President Ronald Reagan told the world he had Alzheimer's, a progressive disorder marked by a destruction of brain cells, brain shrinkage and a resulting loss of mental function. The condition eventually leads to death.
Mr. Proxmire made his poignant disclosure four years before Charleton Heston, a movie actor and president of the National Rifle Association, stunned Americans by making a similar announcement.
His wife recalled how Mr. Proxmire began to recoil from social engagements to avoid being asked questions he couldn't answer. Sometimes he left soon after arriving. "He didn't want to be embarrassed," she said.
At Copper Ridge, Mr. Proxmire has a personal caregiver who is with him daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. "When I visit Copper Ridge, his caregiver keeps telling him, 'That's your wife.'"
She said Mr. Proxmire "will just laugh and laugh" when told that. Asked how she feels about the unusual response, she says, "He's not miserable. He was miserable for years and years" after developing Alzheimer's.
Mrs. Proxmire said it had been about a year and a half since her husband last talked about old memories.
She said he mostly recalled growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., where his father was a physician. "He'd ask, 'When is my father coming to get me?'" Mrs. Proxmire said.
It was that long ago, she said, when Mr. Proxmire confused his son, Ted, with a brother named Ted, who died in the 1930s.
Alzheimer's patients typically forget all events in their recent past, but may recall events and individuals from many years earlier.
Today, said Mrs. Proxmire, her husband seems to have no memories and says little.
Mrs. Proxmire said a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who recently visited Copper Ridge asked Mr. Proxmire questions about his career and other matters, but the former senator couldn't answer any of them.
The reporter said Mr. Proxmire spent most of that day humming.
"He's always very pleasant. He shakes hands [with everyone he meets], but he can't discuss his career," she said.
She said Mr. Proxmire was known as a political leader as well as an athlete and author. "Whenever people see his name today," his wife said, "they wish there was someone still in Congress exposing waste in government."
"The Fleecing of America" and "Uncle Sam: The Last of the Big Time Spenders" were just two of several books he wrote.
Mr. Proxmire also wrote books about healthful living. "He was a very disciplined person. He ate carefully. For breakfast, he would have wheat germ, skim milk, a banana and whole-wheat bread. He never drank coffee. For lunch, he would eat fruit and cottage cheese," his wife said.
Mr. Proxmire "used to exercise carefully and constantly," running five miles every day but switching to walking after learning he had developed Alzheimer's, his wife said. "He used to keep his weight at 130 to 135 pounds. Now he eats with joy, and his weight is at 170 pounds."
Like many Alzheimer's patients, Mr. Proxmire received care at home during his early years with the disease. Mrs. Proxmire said it was sometimes difficult and cited instances when he became aggressive.
"It was very troubling," said Mrs. Proxmire. She said he "fell so many times, he did a lot of physical damage to himself," ending up with extensive scar tissue on his face.
Before Copper Ridge, Mr. Proxmire was briefly at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington.
"He left Sibley at night," she said. "I still don't know how he got home, but he did. He had no money for a cab."
She said a Sibley employee told her about Copper Ridge. "Johns Hopkins and Copper Ridge are joined, and he had to spend a month at Hopkins [Hospital in Baltimore]" before being accepted.
Hopkins doctors, who are also on premises at Copper Ridge, "took him off all the drugs he was on at the time." Mr. Proxmire "is on very few drugs now," and he is content at the institution, which has 120 patients.
"He's not locked in there. He can go outside with his caregiver. It's quiet, peaceful and serene. You have a sense of freedom at Copper Ridge," said Mrs. Proxmire.
Copper Ridge is costly at $6,000 a month, but Mrs. Proxmire said her husband's Senate pension covers his care.
Mrs. Proxmire has accepted a position as co-chairman of a fund-raising campaign for the Copper Ridge Institute, which is separate from the long-term care facility.
"The Copper Ridge Institute, in conjunction with Hopkins, is trying to raise $20 million for research to slow the progress of Alzheimer's and to teach others how to care for Alzheimer's patients," she said.
Mrs. Proxmire says she doesn't understand why her husband has acquired such a devastating disease. "He did everything right. He didn't drink or smoke. It's such a tragedy."
When she takes friends of the former senators to see him at Copper Ridge, "they just start to cry," she said.
Mrs. Proxmire said she has done her share of weeping, but adds: "You run out of tears after a while."

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