In Dementia Reimagined, psychiatrist and bioethicist Tia Powell lays bare the woefully inadequate state of care for the millions of people living today with Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Many are shuttled callously through the healthcare system, resulting in needless agony, confusion and pain. Their caregivers, usually family, have their lives upended and savings drained and are more likely than their peers to suffer from depression and other illnesses.
If this is news to you, that’s because the only time dementia ever seems to be in the news is when some pharmaceutical company puts out a press release about their “promising new drug” that might alleviate Alzheimer’s. “Stop pinning your hopes on a magic pill,” writes Powell, pointing out that 99.6 percent of all clinical trials for dementia treatments have failed. She argues that resources are much more urgently needed to improve the care of the estimated 6 million Americans already living with dementia.
One of those people is Tony Bennett. Four years ago, the crooner was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease after realizing he couldn’t remember the names of the guys in the band, even though they’d played together for years. Since then the disease has progressed and Bennett has forgotten almost everything … except for the lyrics and notes for all those standards that have been part of his repertoire for decades. These, along with his signature stylings, he has retained with marvelous exactitude. As his friend and collaborator Lady Gaga told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes in October, “when that music comes on” — she snapped her fingers — “something happens to him. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Don’t believe her? Then tune in One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, airing this weekend on CBS. In August the two legends, who have cut a pair of albums together, took to the stage of Radio City Music Hall for a pair of concerts that, I can boldly predict, will knock you off your heels.
It’s not just because Bennett, who fashioned an unlikely comeback as a Gen X favorite in his sixties, was still hitting the high notes on his 95th birthday. It’s because this man in the full grip of neurodegenerative illness, who can only offer one-word utterances like “wow!” between numbers (and would not remember wowing 6,500 concertgoers at Radio City in an interview with Cooper laterthat week), performs the seven songs selected from the concert set list, flawlessly.
I was especially struck by a moment during the duet for “Love for Sale.” Lady Gaga is singing, standing next to Tony, who is leaning on the piano. He’s holding the microphone down by his waist and appears to be staring into the distance, seemingly unaware that she’s about to throw it to him. And then, at the very last second, up comes the arm with the mic — smoothly, almost like a robotic arm — and the lyrics pour out of his mouth. Some may find this automatic response a little unnerving, but to me it confirms that something essential to Tony Bennett’s being, something much deeper than cognition or executive function, is burning brightly. He is fully in that moment. (And he is plainly delighted to be standing next to Lady Gaga, whose name he has not forgotten.)
Bennett’s full-time caregiver is Susan Benedetto, his wife of three decades. She, along with his son Danny — who masterminded his dad’s career turnaround — are to be commended for bringing Tony out for one last tour. (Besides this concert special, he and Lady Gaga will appear in an upcoming MTV Unplugged edition and make a documentary.) He continues to sing in private because, obviously, it’s good for him. And even though he won’t remember going on stage or being on TV, it can reasonably be argued that he would never object to this kind of gig, especially if the pay is good. (No mention is made of his illness during the broadcast.)
Other than Glen Campbell, though, it’s hard to think of another public figure who has come out to show the world how you live a good life with dementia. I blame the news media’s tendency to wring the most maudlin narrative out of any story about end-of-life illnesses. (Except, of course, when they enthuse over Alzheimer’s drug trials which, given their abysmal track record, borders on journalistic malpractice.) But when I asked Tia Powell what she thought about Tony Bennett’s decision to perform, she hit an upbeat note.
“It's a powerful positive statement when celebrated people come forward to talk about living with dementia, and help break the narrative that such a life is only bleak,” she told me. “I so wish more people would step up and do this! I am not denying the reality of dementia as a disease, but by only talking about the negative, we miss the chance to support more opportunities for connection and joy.” Indeed, no matter how much loss a person with dementia has suffered, inside each and every one of them remains a song.
One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga airs at 8:00 PM ET Sunday, Nov. 28 on CBS and Paramount+.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, CBS, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett