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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