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The Pandemic Is Taking a Greater Toll on People With Alzheimer’s — Singer Tony Bennett Is One of Them

By | February 4th, 2021

The family of Tony Bennett announced that the legendary singer has been contending with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis since 2016. According to his neurologist, the pandemic has caused his health to rapidly decline. 

Legendary singer Tony Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago after he struggled to remember fellow musicians’ names onstage, which prompted a doctor’s visit. His wife of nearly 14 years, Susan Benedetto (Bennett’s family name), revealed Bennett’s diagnosis to the public just this week. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made life harder for most everyone — but this is especially true for people living with Alzheimer’s. Increased isolation, heightened stress, less activity and potentially diminished access to medical and social support networks can all exacerbate symptoms and speed the toll of the disease. This has been the case for the 94-year-old Bennett, who continued to deliver flawless sets up until his last public performance on March 11th, 2020, just as the pandemic hit the United States.

Bennett’s neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, said Bennett’s condition has declined during the pandemic, due to the lack of interaction and inability to perform publicly. “Just how therapeutically beneficial performing had been for Tony soon became obvious when his world shrank to the confines of his apartment,” she told AARP.

That said, she noted that although Bennett does have cognitive issues, “multiple other areas of his brain are still resilient and functioning well. He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do. He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder.”

Music and Memory

According to the AARP, Bennett continues practice extensively, rehearsing a 90-minute set twice a week with Lee Musiker, his longtime pianist. Although these grim circumstances have impacted Bennett’s memory and ability to communicate, it has not affected his recollection of lyrics and melodies to songs. Not only does he remember them, but he continues to perform with the same meticulousness and expertise as he always has.

This is not unusual for people with Alzheimer’s; music can tap into parts of our brains that are less affected by the ravages of neurodegeneration, helping provide people with a link to their past — as it did with the prima ballerina with advanced Alzheimer’s who is able to recall, decades later, the movements to “Swan Lake,” or the 79-year-old pianist with dementia who phases in and out of the present, but can still play beautiful compositions by ear.

With charting albums released every decade since 1950, this year is no different for Bennett; his follow-up to Cheek to Cheek, a collaboration with Lady Gaga, is set to release this spring, amidst speculations this may be his last. But even without a performance date on the books, she insists Bennett continue to practice as if he might be asked to perform tomorrow. 

Bennet is loved by audiences of all generations for his smooth vocals, broad vocal range, sensitivity and charming smile. Benedetto is Bennett’s full-time caregiver and says although Bennett is unaware of his condition, he continually assures her that he feels great physically. Although Benedetto struggles watching her husband go through this, she considers it an honor. “When people say what do you do? I say, ‘I take care of a national treasure.’” 

Contact Genevieve Glass at genevieve@beingpatient.com

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