Former Arizona Republic reporter discusses book about early-onset Alzheimer’s experience

(Austin Miller/DD)
Maribeth Gallagher speaks at the “Voices of Alzheimer’s” event at the Walter Cronkite School. The event’s main speaker was Greg O’Brien, a former Arizona Republic reporter diagnosed with the disease. (Austin Miller/DD)

Reporters are trained to observe and record, and the best are ready to do so no matter what challenges they face.

In former Arizona Republic reporter Greg O’Brien’s case, the challenge he faces now is early-onset Alzheimer’s. Instead of letting the disease overcome him, he wrote a book chronicling his experience.

In his book On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, O’Brien offers his advice on how to tackle the day-to-day challenges that become a part of dealing with the disease and how to cope with forgetting things that once seemed second nature.

“My book is about living with Alzheimer’s, not dying from it,” O’Brien said as he addressed an audience at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School on Thursday night.

O’Brien was the main speaker at “Voices of Alzheimer’s,” a discussion on Alzheimer’s and dementia presented by Hospice of the Valley. He has more than 35 years of experience with newspapers and magazines as a reporter, editor and publisher. His experience with Alzheimer’s is almost equally extensive; his mother and grandfather both had the disease.

“I like to think I’m doing what my mother wished she could have, giving people a blueprint of how to fight through this,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien used a simple analogy to explain the way the disease takes effect.

“Alzheimer’s is like a loose plug in a socket,” he said.

The plug falls out of the socket over and over. Each time, you put it back — but each time, the plug also gets looser and eventually does not stay in the socket at all, O’Brien explained.

O’Brien told the audience at the Cronkite School that throughout his life he always considered his intelligence to be his most important asset. Now the disease is slowly claiming his memory.

“It’s like having a sliver of your brain shaved every day,” O’Brien said.

Because he can no longer rely on his intellect, O’Brien has started seeking contentment by other means.

“I could crawl up in a ball, but shame on me, I’m a journalist, I have to tell the story,” O’Brien said. “I’ve learned over time to speak more from the heart and to write more from the heart.”

Maribeth Gallagher, the dementia program director at Hospice of the Valley, spoke alongside O’Brien during the presentation. She does not have the disease, but her mother suffered from mixed dementia.

“So much emphasis is placed on the brain, but Alzheimer’s is simply a disease of the brain, not of the heart and soul, and so it calls for us to live from the heart and soul,” Gallagher said. “They are indomitable.”

One of the toughest challenges that come with Alzheimer’s that O’Brien identified is getting past the stage of denial. At the moment there is no cure for the disease. It is a slow killer.

O’Brien admitted that he struggled with this fact at first, but now he feels that he has accepted it. Ray Artigue, a longtime friend and colleague of O’Brien’s, asked him about this understanding.

“Is it a blessing or a curse, knowing how things unfold?” Artigue asked.

“I think it’s a blessing,” O’Brien said.

Contact the reporter at gavin.maxwell@asu.edu