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The Vanishing President

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LIKE AN ACTOR SETTLED INTO A LONG-RUNNING show, he continues to play the familiar role almost by rote: chopping wood, riding horses, visiting his office where, these days, the only business that awaits are letters from well-wishers and a jar of jelly beans. But nearly four months after his poignant handwritten note informing the world that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, former President Ronald Reagan, 84, is increasingly forgetting his lines and missing his cues. “About six months ago, he stopped recognizing me,” Reagan’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote recently. “Now I no longer recognize him.”

Reagan’s November announcement dramatically focused attention on this incurable brain disease that now touches some 4 million Americans and kills 100,000 of them annually. With the U.S. population gradually aging—the percentage of Americans over 85 has doubled in the past two decades—that figure is sure to grow. During the illness’s relentless advance, patients suffer a host of symptoms that destroy the very core of their being: memory loss, disorientation, personality changes. The cost of this disease to society is estimated at $100 billion a year, and that sum seems quite in proportion to the illness’s emotional toll. The disease can often be as devastating to the friends and families of Alzheimer’s patients as to the victims themselves (see stories on following pages).

Reagan’s family began to notice his increasing disorientation in the year and a half before his announcement. Now his memory lapses are becoming more pronounced. “He’ll be in the middle of a story and forget the story,” says a longtime friend of the man once known as the Great Communicator. “That exasperates him terribly.”

He’s “a vibrant guy who’s not so vibrant anymore,” admits Michael Reagan, 49, Reagan’s son with first wife Jane Wyman. “Some days are better than others.” Routine is important to Alzheimer’s patients, and on good days the ex-President’s is the same as it has been since he left office. Accompanied by Secret Service agents, he is driven the 10 minutes from the couple’s home in Bel Air to his 34th-floor office in L.A.’s Century City. At his desk, Reagan reads his mail and receives old friends like actor Charlton Heston and multimillionaire Walter Annenberg before heading home around 3 p.m.

The former President works out daily with his personal trainer. Occasionally he sees close friends at small dinner parties, but he has stopped attending public functions. “In the early stages of the disease, which is where Ronnie is, the Alzheimer’s victim gets confused around unfamiliar people and surroundings,” a friend explains. “Nancy has talked to experts and to friends whose husbands also have Alzheimer’s. She knows what to expect and how to handle Ronnie’s illness.” Five to seven days each month, the couple are at Reagan’s beloved 688-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara. “Ronnie looks forward more to the ranch than anything I know,” says another friend.

Just a few short years ago, the former First Couple seemed on the cusp of a golden retirement. After leaving office, Reagan was inundated with lucrative offers for public appearances, acting jobs and book deals. He took a 1989 trip to Tokyo, earning $2 million for two 20-minute speeches and some public appearances. In September 1990 he made an emotional visit to the remnants of the Berlin Wall, and in November 1991 the four other U.S. Presidents living at the time gathered to honor him at the dedication of his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. But during the past two years his appearances dwindled. “He was fading slowly,” said biographer Morris.

Reagan’s family can expect an increasing burden as his illness progresses, experts say. Although the entire clan, including formerly estranged daughter Patti, has rallied round and spent the holidays together, the heaviest load will fall on Nancy’s slender shoulders. The former President, whose mother, Nelle, is thought to have suffered from Alzheimer’s, touchingly alluded to his wife in his letter. “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,” he wrote. So far, though, “she is perfectly content riding on a slower trail with her husband,” says her aide Cathy Busch. But “it’s tough,” acknowledges her stepson Michael. “It’s hard to see someone you’re in love with that much failing.”