Rosalynn Carter’s dementia diagnosis could spark conversations

Rosalynn Carter's Dementia diagnosis sparks conversation around medical condition
Published: May. 31, 2023 at 12:34 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - The Carter Center announced on Tuesday that former first lady Rosalynn Carter has been diagnosed with dementia.

“She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones,” read the Carter Center statement sent to Atlanta News First. “Mrs. Carter has been the nation’s leading mental health advocate for much of her life. First in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, then in the White House, and later at The Carter Center, she urged improved access to care and decreased stigma about issues surrounding mental health.”

Mrs. Carter’s diagnosis comes less than four months after her husband, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, announced he was entering hospice care.

Dementia itself is a cognitive, not mental health issue, but one-in-ten older Americans will battle it in their lives including one-third of people 90 years old and above, as the 95-year-old Mrs. Carter is.

Rosalynn Carter has been a lifelong champion for mental health care and support for caregivers. In 1979, she helped shepherd the Mental Health Act through U.S. Congress and returned to Georgia to found the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in her hometown of Plains. It provides support and resources to those caring for a loved one.

“Mrs. Carter often noted that there are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers,” said the Carter Center.

Mrs. Carter also advocated for the successful passage of Georgia’s 2022 Mental Health Parity Act which requires insurance companies to cover mental healthcare the same way they cover physical healthcare.

There is no cure for dementia and patients oftentimes don’t get the coverage they need from Medicare and insurance plans. Mrs. Carter’s diagnosis could change that.

“That may stimulate the powers that be, the government agencies that are responsible for advancing the research and paying for – covering some of the medications – maybe it takes someone of her stature to really move the needle,” said Dr. Frank K. Jones with Morehouse School of Medicine.

The Center wouldn’t comment any further on Mrs. Carter’s condition or diagnosis but said the timing of the announcement was meant to prompt other families to have conversations about their own mental health, and willingness to seek treatment and support.

“Whatever spurs a conversation in this day in age is incredibly important and that is something that Mrs. Carter always wanted for mental health,” said Paige Alexander, CEO of the Carter Center. “Many people, especially after COVID have experienced mental health crisis in their family and among friends, and so it was an important educational moment for us. And it happens to be mental health awareness month and so timing was really based on what the family knew she would want to do to bring attention to the issue.”

In the meantime, the Carter Center and the RCI want people to focus on their own health, and on what they can do for caregivers.

“What I would encourage everybody to do is to think about that caregiver in your life and offer to do something to support them,” said Dr. Jennifer Olsen, CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute. “Not ask them ‘what can I do to support you’ because that gives the caregiver an assignment they have to come up with something they ask you to do. Offer to go to the grocery store, offer to cut the grass, offer to sit with the person that that person is caring for. I think that’s what’s critical.”