- - Wednesday, April 20, 2022

At a Washington reception years ago, a family member of mine witnessed the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina happily pocketing Buffalo wings — leaving the sauce dripping from his suit jacket pocket. Aides quickly rushed to his side to steer him away from the buffet and clean up the mess. At the time, Thurmond was in his nineties, was president pro tempore of the United States Senate — and fourth in line to the presidency.

In 2010, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia became a punchline when expressing his concern that overpopulation on the island of Guam would cause it to “tip over and capsize.” While bizarre statements and actions by elected officials remain too lengthy to record, some behaviors can indicate a more significant problem. What about when an entire political party and agenda hang on the tenure of an impaired government official? Who dims the spotlight?

America’s political history remains filled with elected officials who demonstrated questionable abilities while holding office. Edith Wilson covered extensively for her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, following his stroke. In her autobiography, “My Memoir,” the former first lady stated, “So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the president. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

While Edith Wilson declared that she never made a “single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs,” she failed to see that she was indeed making decisions by selecting “what was important and what was not.” She also disregarded that the American people elected Woodrow Wilson — not Edith Wilson.

To be fair, Mrs. Wilson was not the only first lady to enable or choreograph a sitting U.S. president. Nor are spouses the only culprits. Famous and influential people often fuel industry around them of individuals with financial and political stakes in the celebrity or politician remaining on stage.

Some celebrities, such as superstar musician Glen Campbell, use their diagnosis and infirmities as a platform to say goodbye. Honest about his struggle with Alzheimer’s, Mr. Campbell launched a farewell tour where audiences knew of his disease. The documentary, “I’ll Be Me,” reveals the story and challenges faced by the family, musicians, and others who worked on Mr. Campbell’s team. The tour and documentary honored his legacy, bid a final goodbye to his fans and spotlighted the difficulties of families coping with Alzheimer’s disease.

Bruce Willis’ family recently escorted the movie star off the stage in a heartwarming — and heartbreaking — goodbye. In 1994, former President Ronald Reagan signed off from public life until his death 10 years later. Five years before his death in 2018, Billy Graham issued one last invitation for individuals to accept Christ on his 95th birthday —his final public sermon. 

From movie stars to U.S. presidents to world-renowned evangelists, virtually every family in America, at some point, struggles with taking the keys away, prohibiting unsupervised access to cooking devices and bathtubs, and even confiscating a mobile phone from a family member with cognitive impairments. 

While impairments come in many forms, such as aging, disease, injury, alcohol or drugs, enabling also manifests itself in numerous ways.

He’s just tired; she’s got a lot on her; he’s in a lot of pain; she’s just eccentric; oh, he’s always been that way.

All those phrases and more reflect the human condition — we’re prone to deceive others and ourselves. Without objective and established safeguards, the addiction to power, fame and money can quickly blind any of us — even to propping up someone beyond their capabilities.

How many musicians careened onto stages while filled with drugs and alcohol? How many elected officials stayed in power too long? 

Without exception, caregivers of impaired loved ones will find themselves in the predicament of enabling. In those moments, clarity, objectivity and courage remain essential for making healthy decisions for the caregiver, the loved one and all who stand in the path of that loved one’s impairment.

Unlike those in elected office, most families struggling with an impaired loved one cannot affect the nation’s policies — or security. In those circumstances, enabling impaired individuals can result in disastrous outcomes. For those in the spotlight and their caregivers, sometimes the greatest act of love, gratitude and even patriotism is knowing when to exit.

• Peter Rosenberger, a 35+ year caregiver, hosts the nationally syndicated radio program “Hope for the Caregiver.”

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