How should we deal with the unfiltered versions of our loved ones?

I wrote previously about the rumors that the least favorite man in professional sports, Clippers owner Donald Sterling, had Alzheimer’s. It appears that those rumors have been confirmed. USA Today reports that Sterling exhibited symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease after undergoing an extensive neurological examination.

man speaking outline

On the one hand, this development places Alzheimer’s disease in the national spotlight, where it belongs. Unfortunately, because the disease is now associated with a man that so many find morally reprehensible, there is bound to be some backlash.

As I followed the news on Twitter, I found many people who found the Alzheimer’s diagnosis all too convenient, a way to look for sympathy from a public that was left aghast by his vehemently racist remarks that were secretly recorded by his much younger girlfriend. Others simply equated Alzheimer’s with crazy, saying “duh” of course Sterling is a crazy old man.

I hope in the days and weeks to come, as this dirty sports saga plays out in the American media, we can have an honest conversation about Alzheimer’s and behavior. This case raises many interesting questions for me. First of all, I think many of have experienced how those with Alzheimer’s lose their conversational filters, saying whatever comes to mind, whether it is offensive or just strange. Some begin to use profanity when they never did before. Generally I think those of us in the Alzheimer’s and dementia communities understand that this is the disease talking, and those afflicted should not be held responsible for their harsh words. For physically abusive actions, we can try behavior modification techniques and medications.

But the Sterling case is a bit different. There are numerous reports that Sterling had been a virulent racist his entire life, despite winning awards from the NAACP. Has the disease just erased his filter? Should the Sterling family be forced to sell the team for what a mentally ill man said, when he was allowed to be an NBA owner all of this time, even with his racist views?

I’m not raising these questions to defend Sterling; certainly he is a very wealthy man who can afford the best of lawyers and doctors to serve his best interest. But it is interesting to debate how much we should hold those with Alzheimer’s and dementia accountable for their words and actions.

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