Just a few days ago, we heard the news that Glen Campbell, the country singer known for such hits as “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Wichita Lineman,” has been diagnosed with probably Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 75. According to this article, he has gone public with his diagnosis because he plans to give a farewell concert tour this fall and wants fans to be aware of his condition so that they will understand any missed notes or flubbed lyrics.
Of course, I am sorry that this man and his family are facing such a devastating diagnosis. I wish nobody had to face Alzheimer’s disease for themselves or their loved ones. I do have to say, though, that I am pleased that Mr. Campbell has decided to continue performing for a while longer.
Perhaps one reaction to Glen Campbell’s announcement would be to suggest that he should quit performing now, that he should exit stage right quietly while people can still remember him as being young and gregarious. We like our entertainers young, beautiful and energetic. We don’t typically want to see people aging in the public arena, because we prefer to deny the inevitability of death and the diseases that sometimes accompany aging. Alzheimer’s disease has had a particular stigma because it involves the gradual loss of one’s mental capabilities and significant changes in one’s personality. We don’t want to see our favorite entertainers confused or forgetting the words to their most popular songs – it reminds us that maybe this disease could also strike us or someone we love.
On the other hand, aging is a natural part of life, and I think there is a particular beauty in the music of people who have been around for a long time. Even the meaning of the songs they have sung for decades can shift and deepen over years of experience. It is also true that Alzheimer’s disease is a real threat for people who are aging, even as we acknowledge that dementia is not a normal part of aging and search for effective treatments for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Seeing a person perform who is dealing with the early stages of this disease gives people a glimpse of a very real human experience, just like hearing someone sing about heartbreak helps us to understand that heartbreak just a little bit better. I can only imagine the kind of courage it takes to get up on stage to perform, showing this vulnerability to the world.
I don’t know. Maybe this vulnerability is too much for the audience to see and for the performer to show. Maybe heartbreaking beauty is just a variety we cannot stand. Maybe we just want entertainment, and this is too close to art. Still, I think it shows great courage and honesty on the part of Glen Campbell to share his diagnosis with the world and keep performing his music anyway. Perhaps more people will learn about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and that life does not end with the diagnosis. Perhaps people will even learn to be forgiving of the missteps that can come with this disease while still respecting the man they admired.
I admire Glen Campbell for his decision to continue with his final album and farewell tour. What do you think? How should performers and other celebrities handle diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease?