Sandra Day O’Connor, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Caregiving

Just about everyone knows that Sandra Day O’Connor, who died today at the age of 93, was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States when she was nominated and confirmed to the bench in 1981. Though the general public is less aware of the circumstances around her retirement from the court in 2005 and the years that followed, many in the caregiving community remember the details of her plight.  

When she announced her retirement after a quarter century on the nation’s highest court, Justice O’Connor was in throes of caregiving for her husband, John Jay O’Connor. John lived for nearly two decades after he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1990, which made for a long caregiver journey for both Justice O’Connor and her family. His condition and increasing needs most certainly contributed to her retirement at a relatively young age of 75.

For many years during her time on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was a working caregiver. Today, it is estimated that one in six employees in the United States serve as a caregiver for a family member or friend, and average more than 20 hours a week providing some kind of care. While her situation was unique, and access to support for her husband was likely more abundant than most people experience, she certainly dealt with some of the same hardships and emotions that other working caregivers face. “If it can happen to her it can happen to anyone,” said St. John’s Dementia/Quality of Life Specialist Mimi DeVinney about Justice O’Connor’s journey as a caregiver. “Nobody is exempt.”

O’Connor’s experience with her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis also was a very public one. In 2007, it was reported that John—by then in an assisted living community in the Washington D.C. area—had struck up a new relationship with another resident living there. While on the surface her husband’s new romance would appear to be heartbreaking, and privately it likely was, her son suggested that she was at peace with the situation. “Mom was thrilled that dad was relaxed and happy,” Scott O’Connor said at the time.

“She seemed to handle it with real grace and compassion,” DeVinney says about Former Justice O’Connor’s reaction to her husband’s changing condition and how that changed her role as his wife of 55 years. “She was able to step to the side because he was happy.”

Unfortunately, Former Justice O’Connor’s dementia journey did not end with John’s death in 2009. Sandra Day O’Connor announced her own dementia diagnosis in 2018 as she left public life. Still, her ability to amplify the plight of working caregivers and the selfless focus she placed on husband’s well-being towards the end of his life is an example that will be remembered for generations to come.

Photo courtesy of T.J. Kirkpatrick

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