This article tells the story of Alice Lusby Pasqualetti ’52 and her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Also read My March to UnPersonhood: One Woman’s Battle with Dementia for Alice’s own account.
Alice Lusby Pasqualetti ’52 works on a homemade Russian version of the word game Bananagrams. Alice, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, uses the game to help her hone her Russian language skills.
Thirty-five years ago in the library at the University of California, Berkeley, Alice Lusby Pasqualetti ’52 struggled for the first time in her life to learn a new language.
She was trying to memorize a paragraph in Russian—an assignment for a course she hoped would help on her planned trip to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But no matter how many times she repeated the words, they escaped her the next time around.
Alice was baffled. What could possibly be wrong? She started learning French at age five. She studied two foreign languages while a student at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College—using both in her career. And there she was, completely unable to grasp Russian.
This incident was decades before her official diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. But looking back, Alice believes this was the first indication there was something wrong.
Now 84 years old, Alice continues to learn the Russian language. She spreads tiles with Cyrillic letters on them across her table and then slides them around to form words. It’s a personalized version of the word game Bananagrams, which she made when she learned the manufacturer did not make a Russian version.
The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s afflicts many in the R-MWC and Randolph College community, whether directly or through a family member. Yet, many are reluctant to talk publicly. Alice decided to step forward recently, writing an essay about her struggle in hopes it would help others see they are not alone.
“I know it is a condition that is so widespread right now and will be a financial burden on our country,” she said. “Also, I know that I’m not the only alumna with Alzheimer’s. I would like to bring it more out into the light.”
‘It’s almost like the common cold’
More than 5 million people in the United States currently have Alzheimer’s disease. It is the country’s sixth leading cause of death.
“It’s almost like the common cold,” said Margaret “Margot” Holt Gill ’52, a friend of Alice. “I know tons of people who are in various stages of dementia or who have Alzheimer’s. I’ve lost several close friends to Alzheimer’s. It’s all around us.”
Margot, one of the first classmates Alice told about her diagnosis, remembers her friend as being serious about her education. “She worked hard and did what she was supposed to do,” she said.
After college, Alice worked for a French jewelry company and later became a social worker. When her husband’s allergies prevented her from having cats, she started a cat- sitting company that eventually had 14 employees.
Alice never had children of her own, but she is adored by her relatives. Her oldest nephew, Frank Lusby, describes her with a variety of words: vibrant, loving, cultured, enthusiastic, traditional yet modern. “She is a really good listener,” he said. “She would always come up with very creative Christmas gifts.”
Not long after Alice started struggling to learn Russian, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. So she never revealed her worries about her memory. Her husband, Roy Pasqualetti, died in 1989. In the mid-1990s, Alice moved to New Mexico. She became an active volunteer and earned a state license to teach French. She began substitute teaching in 2003, at age 72.
But her memory continued to deteriorate. She forgot how to collate pages in a volunteer assignment. In conversation, she halted mid-sentence, losing her train of thought. Her French vocabulary also started to slip; the language she had loved for more than 60 years was evading her.
“I think I have Alzheimer’s,” she told a neurologist who treated her for migraine headaches.
“You do not,” he said, trying to reassure her. He was wrong.
‘My March to Unpersonhood’
In 2012, she was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Alice started telling her close friends and relatives. Her doctor prescribed two medications as well as exercise. “I feel I have gotten excellent results, mostly because I’m able to read better than I had been,” she said recently.
Alice also has recruited a network of people who help her with a variety of tasks, including an accountant, a computer consultant, a housekeeper, and a lawyer who specializes in estate planning and end-of-life care arrangements. Friends like Margot and relatives like Frank offer support and understanding. Frank and his wife try to check in regularly. “We love her very much,” he said.
Alice sometimes worries about her future with Alzheimer’s. When she wrote her essay about her experience with the disease, she titled it “My March to Unpersonhood” because she fears that is what her life is now.
“If I progress to the point of needing institutionalized care, I will not at all be a person such as I am now,” she said. “I would not know people. I would need round-the-clock care.”
Some people who experience symptoms of Alzheimer’s choose not to be tested, fearing the prognosis—the disease can be slowed but not cured. “Some people cannot take it,” she said. “If it comes back with a diagnosis, some people really go to pieces seeing that.”
For Alice, finding out for sure was the right choice, she said. It has allowed her to be proactive about her life, as well as start a discussion about the disease.
Should I be tested?
“A normal part of aging is forgetting nouns and names, even of people we know well,” said Susan Kelly Blue ’66, a neurologist. However, if a person starts having trouble with routine tasks, such as following a recipe or going to a familiar location without getting lost, then testing for dementia may be beneficial,
Early detection can be critical because the patient may start taking medications that can slow—but not reverse—the progression of Alzheimer’s. “Two or three years later, when we know there is a problem, we can still put you on them, but it would have been better to be on them sooner,” she said.
Because denial is one symptom of dementia, people rarely ask to be evaluated to see whether they have the disease. It is important for family members to step in, especially if the person exhibiting symptoms is living alone and might not have help readily available.