Sandra Day O’Connor, Dementia, and SSD
When Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1981, she made history. Though the Supreme Court had been an integral part of the American government since 1790, there had not been a female justice on the Supreme Court until O’Connor. She served on the court until 2006, participating in landmark cases like Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore, which helped to decide the results of the contested 2000 presidential election. Her role on the Supreme Court also empowered many other women in law, and paved the way for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elaina Kagan, and Sonya Sotomayor, the three current female justices on the Supreme Court.
Now 88 years old, O’Connor is still seen as the founder of this barrier-breaking group of female justices. However, when O’Connor announced her withdrawal from public life, it was revealed that she had joined a much bigger group: those with dementia.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather an umbrella term for a group of symptoms. A wide array of diseases and conditions can lead to dementia, but the most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease.
There are an estimated 46.8 million people throughout the world with dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. The vast majority of people with dementia are over the age of 60. However, the assumption that it only affects elderly people is incorrect. In fact, 200,000 Americans suffer from symptoms before 65, a condition called early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia Symptoms, Types, and Causes
When someone suffers from dementia, they might experience symptoms like:
- Memory loss
- Mental decline
- Confusion and disorientation, especially in the early evening hours
- Unsteady walking
- Frequent falls
- Jumbled speech
In some cases, dementia might be the result of issues like infections, nutritional deficiencies, bleeding on the surface of the brain, or a bad reaction to a medication. In these cases, it is reversible. Other times, symptoms are the result of a progressive disease, which means that they will get worse. Along with Alzheimer’s disease, some common types of progressive dementia include:
- Vascular, caused by blood vessel damage
- Lewy body, caused by abnormal clumps of protein in the brain
- Frontotemporal, which is the result of a breakdown of nerve cells in the front of the brain
When someone has a type of progressive dementia, they may suffer from life-threatening issues like difficulties with breathing or swallowing, as well as an increased risk of infections, pneumonia, and blood clots. At its latest stages, dementia is a terminal illness.
Since it affects memory and cognition, dementia can have an impact on a person’s ability to work. This means that dementia might qualify them for Social Security Disability (SSD).
SSD for Dementia
For a condition to qualify for SSD, it must last at least 12 months, or be expected to last 12 months or result in death. This means that progressive types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, are more likely to qualify than a type of reversible dementia.
Additionally, the Social Security Administration looks at an applicant’s ability to perform tasks like:
- Learning and remembering
- Planning and judgement
- Physical coordination
- Social judgement
If someone has severe limitations in these areas, they will likely qualify for SSD. However, if they can still perform some type of work—for example, if they can do data entry that does not require much memory—they will likely not qualify, as they can still do some work despite their limitations.
Since dementia tends to affect older people, many people do not experience the symptoms until they are retired. But when someone is of working age and begins to suffer from dementia, SSD is something that should be considered.
Though she is retiring from the public eye to focus on her own health and comfort, Sandra Day O’Connor is still playing an important role—not just by continuing to inspire woman and girls to pursue legal careers, but in the conversation about dementia.
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