ATLANTA — Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has dementia, the Carter family announced Tuesday.
In a statement released by the Carter Center, the family disclosed her health condition, adding that she is “enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones.”
“One in 10 older Americans have dementia, a condition that affects overall mental health,” the statement read. “We recognize, as she did more than half a century ago, that stigma is often a barrier that keeps individuals and their families from seeking and getting much-needed support. We hope sharing our family’s news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctor’s offices around the country.”
In February, the Carter family announced that Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn’s husband and the former U.S. president, had decided against any further medical treatment and entered home hospice care.
At the time, the Carter Center did not elaborate on the former president’s condition. But over the past decade, Jimmy Carter — who is 98 and the longest-living president in U.S. history — endured a host of illnesses. Rosalynn Carter is 95.
The Carters have been at home together in the tiny rural town of Plains, in the same ranch house where they have lived since 1961, absent their time in the Georgia governor’s mansion and the White House.
Tuesday’s announcement of Rosalynn Carter’s health condition harkens to the work she has tackled most of her life: mental health and caregiving.
When her husband was running for governor in 1970 she would often run into people whose families were dealing with some form of mental illness or facing difficulties in trying to find care for family members. She became a high-profile advocate for mental health during her husband’s presidency, making it one of her lasting legacies.
Her Mental Health Program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center has hosted an annual symposium of national mental health leaders to form policy. It also has created a journalism fellowship program to encourage accurate reporting about mental health issues. In 2010, she wrote the book, “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.”
In 2015, Carter survived a melanoma diagnosis that later spread to his brain. The discovery followed the removal of a lesion on his liver that took about 10% of the organ. He also suffered several falls in 2019, including one requiring 14 stitches, and other health scares that have required hospitalization.
Last July, the Carters celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary, extending their record as the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history, followed by former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who were married for 73 years and 102 days until Barbara’s 2018 death.
The Carters married on July 7, 1946, in a tiny Methodist church in Plains. He was a 21-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate. She was the 18-year-old salutatorian of Plains High School who had fallen in love with a photograph of the future president that she had seen hanging on the bedroom wall of her friend Ruth, Carter’s sister.
Rosalynn Carter was only 12 years old when she was charged with helping to care for her father when he fell terminally ill with leukemia. In 1987, she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers to help those who are helping others.
In February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that researchers at the institute, which is housed at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, are working to help employers develop support programs for employees who find themselves in caregiving roles. The research staff is also exploring how caregiver bereavement can be better monitored and managed, as well as researching patterns across the caregiver population that could shape policy.
Dr. Jennifer Olsen, the CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute, commended the family’s courage in sharing major health updates for both Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter this year.
Olsen invoked Rosalynn’s quote about four kinds of people found in the world: “Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
“This speaks to the incredible work that she’s led over 35 years, to think about and support people who are caring for someone struggling with dementia,” Olsen said.
Since founding the institute, Rosalynn Carter herself has penned numerous open letters to sitting presidents, governors and congressional leaders urging them to make policy decisions that benefit caregivers. When Rosalynn hired Olsen to run her institute in 2018, the former first lady’s vision guided the organization as it grew by leaps and bounds, extending its reach nationwide.
“Mrs. Carter was integral in setting us on the path we’re on now,” Olsen said.
“As the founder of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, Mrs. Carter often noted that there are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers,” the family said in Tuesday’s statement. “The universality of caregiving is clear in our family, and we are experiencing the joy and the challenges of this journey. We do not expect to comment further and ask for understanding for our family and for everyone across the country serving in a caregiver role.”