Man Gives Alzheimer’s a Bad Name

by Nancy Wurtzel on February 18, 2013

Yes, you read the headline correctly.  The Star-Tribune, our excellent daily newspaper in the Twin Cities, ran a front-page story yesterday about James W. Smith of Hermantown, Minnesota.

Smith, a local Alzheimer’s activist who also claimed he had early onset dementia, is going to jail for faking his illness and bilking taxpayers and his insurance company out of close to $450,000.

In a nutshell, starting around 2005, Smith was able to bamboozle several doctors into believing that he had memory loss — even a Mayo Clinic neurologist.  Because of his diagnosis, Smith was able to retire from his job in his mid-40s and collect disability.

But Smith wasn’t satisfied.  He wanted a taste of the limelight, too.

Over the next few years, Smith volunteered with local Alzheimer’s organizations, wrote essays, gave interviews, lobbied the Legislature, led a support group and even was invited to Washington, D.C. to address activists. A few years later, he left his wife and then refused to assist his children with their college education.

Instead, Smith bought an 80-acre hobby farm (which is the Minnesota equivalent of a Mazerati), acquired a girlfriend and retreated to his compound.

About this same time, it became apparent to a number of people that Smith wasn’t demented at all.  He was only a liar and a jerk.  Once the authorities got wind of the deception, they sent undercover personnel to evaluate the situation.  After two encounters with Smith, he was busted.

Fast forward a few years, and Smith has plead guilty and will soon be going to jail.

Actually, this weird story could make for an intriguing work of fiction.  However, it also taints the Alzheimer’s cause, and this fact has made me really angry.

So many organizations, people and healthcare workers dedicate themselves day-after-day to the Alzheimer’s cause.  Then, a sleazy guy comes along and scams the system.  His story makes the headlines and the focus of the story is changed.

Could Smith’s deception make it more difficult for someone who really has dementia to collect disability?  Will donors have Smith in mind when they are asked to give?  Has he given Alzheimer’s a bad name?

I only hope the judge will keep all of this in mind at Smith’s sentencing.  If I were in the courtroom on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, I would say this to the judge: Remember those who can’t remember.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Morris Woods August 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm

When is James Smith’s trial? Which court?

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Patrick April 12, 2013 at 1:07 am

Doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the doctors. I sure hope they learn from this case. Who would want to fake such a terrible thing as dementia. I can’t believe he could fool so many people .

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Judy March 14, 2013 at 10:08 am

There’s a bigger problem than this out there, and that’s scumballs who prey on the elderly. So many elderly people put their finances in jeopardy because they buy anything the phone man, or mail out jerks, are selling. Sometimes they go through all their money before their kids figure out what is going on. My mom had to get to the mail and throw out all that stuff, because daddy would order it. Luckily vascular dementia did not hit her until after daddy’s death. But scum are out there always looking for a way to take advantage of the elderly. This man is just 1 picture of those type of people.

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SYLVIA February 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

HEY YALL WHAT IF HE’S PUT IN A PLACE WHERE HE’S TREATED LIKE CRAP AND NOBODY CARES, WHAT IF HE GET’S A TASTE OF HIS OWN MEDICINE, I’M A CHRISTIAN SO I HOPE GOD FORGIVE ME FOR THINKING THAT WAY. BUT I GET SO ANGRY WHEN CRAZY FOLKS DO SOME THING LIKE THAT. IT’S SICK PEOPLE RIGHT NOW THAT CAN’T GET HELP FOR WHAT EVER AND HE GET’S ALL THAT MONEY JUST FOR FAKING. JAIL ISN’T ENOUGH FOR HIM.

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Anne-Marie February 20, 2013 at 8:09 am

He is demented, but in another way. And stupid too. How long did he think he could keep up the charade? Let’s hope that he is an isolated case.

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Brittany February 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm

So so sad. I have read similar stories of people doing this with cancer and things. So crazy that people actually do this.

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Ellen Dolgen February 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Wow. I “forgot” what I was going to say.

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Sharon Greenthal February 19, 2013 at 11:54 am

As awful as this story is, it doesn’t surprise me at all. So many people are just out to take, take, take. But my philosophy in life – “what goes around, comes around”- will always win out. He is seeing that happen now.

I hope no one is denied help because of his selfish behavior. THAT would be a disaster.

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Donna February 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

That is reprehensible. I hope the judge throws the book at him. I wouldn’t worry about his actions making much of a dent in public awareness of Alzheimer’s as a legitimate cause that needs research and support. With a huge aging population of baby boomers, too many of us are gaining personal experience with it.

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Carol (middle-aged-diva) February 19, 2013 at 8:44 am

UNbelievable. Seriously.

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