Tony Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of age-related dementia. Alzheimer’s is characterized by a progressive memory loss that robs its sufferers of many of the gifts that we all take for granted — speech, understanding, treasured memories, recognition of loved ones — and leaves them utterly dependent on caregivers. Bennett, first diagnosed in 2016, has so far been spared the disorientation that can prompt patients to wander from home, as well as the episodes of terror, rage or depression that can accompany Alzheimer’s frightening detachment from reality; and, indeed, he might never develop these symptoms. But there was little doubt that the disease had progressed. Even his increasingly rare moments of clarity and awareness reveal the depths of his debility. At one point, as Susan and I stood chatting, he looked up suddenly from the book in his lap and, flashing that familiar smile, asked me in his soft, sueded whisper, “How’s the weather outside?” Had I not known that he and Susan had just returned from walking their dog in the park, I might not have suspected that anything was amiss.
Such short-term memory loss is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s stealthy onset, but long-term memories also progressively vanish — which lent an extra poignancy to the fact that the picture book that so gripped his attention was Tony Bennett Onstage and in the Studio (2018), a lavishly illustrated volume that featured photos from every stage of his life, from babyhood onward. He stared into its pages not with the air of warm reminiscence but like a man struggling to recall why these images seemed familiar. Although he can still recognize family members, he is, according to Susan, not always sure where he is or what is happening around him. Mundane objects as familiar as a fork or a set of house keys can be utterly mysterious to him.