LOS ANGELES — A dozen years after leaving the White House and looking forward to sunset years chopping wood and riding horses, Ronald Reagan celebrates his 90th birthday as a recluse battling old age with Alzheimer’s disease and a broken hip.
Reagan’s birthday Tuesday will be a subdued celebration at his Bel-Air home, where he is recovering from surgery to repair the hip broken Jan. 12 in a fall.
“We will celebrate Ronnie’s 90th birthday very quietly here at home with a birthday cake (likely his favorite chocolate), of course!” Mrs. Reagan said in a written response to questions e-mailed to her by The Associated Press.
Reagan is only one of three presidents to reach his 90th birthday – John Adams and Herbert Hoover are the others. Yet, the nation’s 40th president looks much like he did when the actor-politician returned to his beloved California.
“He looks fine. I mean, you know, his skin, and he’s got a full head of hair. ... I mean, when the barber comes to cut his hair, he has to thin it!” Mrs. Reagan told Larry King for CNN’s “Larry King Live” show scheduled Tuesday.
Reagan basked in the glory of retirement for six years, then learned he had Alzheimer’s. He became a recluse under the consummate protection of his wife.
“Everywhere we go, she makes the world a little better. I can’t imagine life without her,” Reagan often said of Nancy. The couple’s 49th wedding anniversary is March 4, when Mrs. Reagan will christen the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
“Today we received a very large birthday card with a big picture of the entire crew and officers of the new aircraft carrier that’s being named after Ronnie, and they all signed it for him,” Mrs. Reagan told the AP.
Mrs. Reagan has vigilantly guarded her husband’s privacy since he withdrew from public view on Nov. 5, 1994, with a poignant letter about his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,” he wrote.
God, prayer, friends and well-wishers worldwide have given her strength, Mrs. Reagan said. The world remembered the Great Communicator when he broke his hip: More than 10,000 cards, letters and e-mail wishes were sent.
“With that kind of support and so many prayers, we’re able to get through this ordeal one day at a time,” she said.
“Also, I’ve been blessed with an irreplaceable support system of doctors, nurses, staff and Secret Service agents. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
One close friend, Merv Griffin, fondly remembers past Reagan birthdays.
“Ronnie’s birthday was always the fun event of the year – sometimes at the ranch with cowboy clothes and the horses milling around, sometimes at Chasen’s (restaurant) with the Washington leadership,” Griffin said.
“But always his acknowledgment of his birthday was the same. This year it would have been, ’Thank you for acknowledging the 51st anniversary of my 39th birthday,”’ Griffin said.
Reagan has endured medical crises before: An assassination attempt, cancer, brain surgery, Alzheimer’s disease and now a broken hip.
“I was really frightened,” Mrs. Reagan said. “I had never imagined anything else happening to him after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t get him to the emergency room fast enough.”
She scoffed at a recent supermarket tabloid report claiming the president fell when he tried to stand and salute after hearing a gardener whistling “America the Beautiful.”
“The story about Ronnie saluting right before he fell is ridiculous,” Mrs. Reagan said. “The doctors tell me that his hip appears to have broken when he put weight on the leg in a somewhat twisted position and this is what caused him to fall.”
A pin, plate and screws were used to repair the hip and he was able to go home a week after surgery.
“Right now he is involved in simple physical therapy that has him sitting up twice a day in a special orthopedic chair that helps to keep his leg straight,” Mrs. Reagan said. “He has been sitting in it longer each day and the doctors and physical therapists are encouraged that this is giving him the strength to begin with weight-bearing therapy in the next seven to 10 days.
“He has a healthy appetite, his color has completely returned to normal and he’s even sleeping better.”
The Reagans have helped others understand and cope with Alzheimer’s.
Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Association said they were grateful for the couple’s “extraordinary courage in continuing to share their story with the world, building awareness, lifting the stigma of Alzheimer’s and showing families that they are not alone.”
Fourteen million of today’s baby boomers are expected to have Alzheimer’s by the middle of the century, the association said.
“It’s very age-related,” said Stephen McConnell, the association’s vice president of programs and public policy. “Between ages 65 and 74, it hits about 1 to 2 percent. For people over 85, it’s about half the population.”
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