A poignant new AARP profile of Tony Bennett, 94, reveals that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. In the years since, the legendary jazz singer has continued to tour extensively and to record new music, including a second album with Lady Gaga (with whom he recorded 2014’s Cheek to Cheek), which is set to be released this spring.
Bennett first sought neurological advice in 2015, after complaining to his wife, Susan, that he was struggling to remember the names of the other musicians onstage. Months later, at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, he got his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Bennett’s neurologist Gayatri Devi, M.D., told reporter John Colapinto that she encouraged him to keep working on his music. “It kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way,” she said.
As Colapinto notes in his story, music’s benefits for dementia patients is “well documented but not well understood.” Over the past few years, even as his memory has deteriorated offstage, onstage, Bennett has been able to perform 90-minute sets perfectly. But the outbreak of COVID-19 meant that all touring was put on hold, and the disruption has had a huge impact on Bennett, as well as many other dementia patients.
“His memory, prior to the pandemic, was so much better,” Devi said. “And he’s not alone. So many of my patients are negatively affected by the isolation, the inability to do the things that matter to them. For someone like Tony Bennett, the big high he gets from performing was very important.”
Bennett’s family and friends wanted to share his diagnosis, they explained, because they hoped it would help remove some of the stigma that surrounds Alzheimer’s.
“Panicking and hiding away is really unhelpful,” Gill Livingston, M.D., a University College London psychiatrist who specializes in dementia, told AARP. “What we want is for people to be as open as they can, open within themselves and within their families, so that they can be supported in the things they can’t do, and be helped to live a relatively full life. Support makes a great deal of difference.”
Bennett’s son, Danny, said that when he told Lady Gaga that they were considering coming forward about his father’s diagnosis, she welcomed the idea. “I wanted to check with her to make sure she was cool, because she watches his back all the time,” Danny said. “She was like, ‘Absolutely, it’s just another gift that he can give to the world.’”