Part 3: Celebrities with Parkinson’s Disease (Janet Reno)

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills and speech.  In its advanced stages, sufferers could become disabled, with problems feeding themselves, talking and walking.

Between 15-20% of Parkinson’s patients develop dementia, though this symptom is less common among people who develop the disease before age 60. About 40-50 % of people also experience depression during the illness. The mood disorder seems to be a result of the disease process, and is not simply an emotional reaction to illness and is often treatable with antidepressant drugs.

Despite its debilitating effects, many sufferers of Parkinson’s have enjoyed considerable achievement in a wide variety of fields.  Examples of celebrities with Parkinson’s include Michael J Fox, Muhammad Ali, and Janet Reno.  In Part 1, we covered Michael J. Fox and his notable contributions to helping fund research to develop a cure and a vaccine.  In Part 2, we focused on Muhammad Ali, his fight with Parkinson’s, and his founding of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. In Part 3, we will discuss Janet Reno and her strength in fighting the disease.

 Part 3: Spotlight on Janet Reno

I didn’t know what to expect. I think “puzzled” best expresses how I felt. Not frightened. Nothing I read, about the first stage or the second stage, caused me fear. But, then again, it strikes everybody differently. That’s one of the things that make it such a curmudgeonly disease. Janet Reno

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami, Florida. Her father, Henry Reno, came to the United States from Denmark and for forty-three years was a police reporter for the Miami Herald.  Jane Wood, Reno’s mother, raised her children and then became an investigative reporter for the Miami News.  Janet Reno has three younger siblings.

Reno attended public school in Dade County, Florida, where she was a debating champion at Coral Gables High School.  She attended Cornell University in 1956, majoring in chemistry, and then became one of 16 women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School.  She received her law degree from Harvard three years later.  Despite her Harvard degree, she had difficulty obtaining work as a lawyer because she was a woman.

In 1971, Reno was named staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives.  During her tenure, she helped revise the Florida court system.  In 1973, she accepted a position with the Dade County State’s Attorney’s Office.  She left the state’s attorney’s office in 1976 to become a partner in a private law firm.

After several years in private practice, Reno ran for county prosecutor for Dade County in the late 1970s.  She served in that position from 1978 to 1993.  She was known for working hard on behalf of children, against drug peddlers, and against corrupt judges and police officers.  Reno was thrust into the national spotlight in 1993 when she became the first woman to be appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Bill Clinton.

During the early days of her tenure as U.S. Attorney General, Reno faced one of her biggest challenges.  When self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh and his followers known as the Branch Davidians ended up in a stand-off with FBI agents, she was called upon to help resolve the situation.  Reno approved the siege against the Branch Davidians compound near Waco, Texas.  Unfortunately, it did not go as planned and many Branch Davidians (including Koresh) died during the event.  Reno publicly took responsibility for the deadly siege.  Other actions of the Department of Justice under Reno’s leadership included bringing Microsoft to court for antitrust violations, capture and conviction of the Unabomber, capture and conviction of those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and initiation of a lawsuit against tobacco companies.

In 1995, during her term as Attorney General, Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  She said in her public announcement, “As I grow old … and become an old lady, I may find some limitations in mobility,” said Reno, “But I feel fine now… I don’t feel I have any impairment.”

Through her remaining five years as the longest-serving Attorney General since 1829, Reno made few concessions to her Parkinson’s while continuing to run the world’s largest law office.  

Today, Reno can be found traveling all over the country to speak on Parkinson’s and other issues she’s passionate about.  In 2011, Reno and her sister Maggy Hurchalla helped open the University of Florida’s Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration (Watch the video), a center where people with Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, tremor, movement problems and ataxia have access to the latest research-based care and the opportunity to shape future therapies.

So far, Parkinson’s hasn’t interfered with her public schedule.  And she takes a similar, straightforward tack in dealing with the emotional side of Parkinson’s: the fears and anxiety of having a progressive neurological disorder. According to Reno, “when darker thoughts hit, I wiggle and relax myself, and then take a deep breath and move ahead.”

Other people with Parkinson’s often approach Reno at her appearances, asking how she copes. “The disease affects everybody differently, and you can’t generalize from one person’s experience to someone else’s”, she says. “But for everyone, I think it’s important to keep a positive attitude and keep exercising as much as possible.  Be as active as you can be: there’s no reason you should necessarily quit work, for example.  I think the more you can remain involved, and the more you can be active mentally and physically, the better you can respond to this disease.”

Physical activity has been one of the most important coping strategies for the energetic Reno.  Walking, bicycle riding, cleaning house, swimming, kayaking.  According to Reno, “walking and swimming are two of the best exercises out there for people with Parkinson’s. Your doctor can be very helpful in suggesting the best exercises for you. The important thing is not to overdo, and do everything in a balanced way.”

Are you or a loved one suffering from Parkinson’s Disease?

At The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C., we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and their loved ones.  If you or a loved one are suffering from Parkinson’s disease, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs.  We help protect your hard-earned assets while maintaining your comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring your eligibility for critical government benefits.

How can we help?

A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease means adjusting to decreased mobility and other burdens of the disease. To alleviate problems later, it is important to plan now for the worst to ensure your wishes are carried out and your family protected.

The first and most essential legal document is a Power of Attorney.  Parkinson’s disease can be very disruptive, and there may come a time with the illness that you would prefer others make choices for you.  Many married couples assume that they are allowed to make legally binding decisions on behalf of their spouses. Unfortunately, this is not the case unless you sign a Power of Attorney. 

In addition, part of lifetime planning is to ensure that you or your loved one gets the best possible care and maintains the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection can be started any time after a person enters the “long-term care continuum,” meaning that a person is starting to need assistance with Activities of Daily Living (eating, dressing, bathing, toileting, transferring, and walking) or Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (such as cooking,  cleaning, caring for pets, paying bills and managing finances).  This type of planning can be started while you are still able to make legal and financial decisions, or can be initiated by an adult child acting as agent under a properly-drafted Power of Attorney, even if you are already in a nursing home or receiving other long-term care assistance.  In fact, the majority of our Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection clients come to us when nursing home care is already in place or is imminent.  Read more about Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection.

If you missed any of the parts of this three-part “Celebrities with Parkinson’s” series, you can read Part 1: Michael J. Fox or Part 2: Muhammad Ali on our Elder Law Plus blog.  If you or a loved one has Parkinson’s Disease, plan for your future. Call The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C. at 703-691-1888 today to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.