Reagan, 93, Sets Longevity Record

Former President Ronald Reagan turns 93 Friday.

Mr. Reagan has lived longer than any U.S president, but the man known as the Great Communicator has been rarely seen in the last decade. He and his family are dealing with his advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease.

His wife, Nancy Reagan, plans a small, very private celebration at their Bel Air, Calif., home. Events are planned at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, and there's a re-opening ceremony (after a fire last year) at the Reagan Museum in Eureka, Ill.

Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the former president and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith his father has been bedridden since he broke his hip a couple of years ago, but still looks good.

He says, "When I saw him the other day, he had great color, did need a haircut. You can't communicate with him, but he has a strong heart and he has strong lungs. All you can do is hug him and give him a kiss, say a prayer and just hope for the best."

In the last picture of Mr. Reagan made public several years ago, he looked physically well. Michael Reagan credits all the lawn cutting his father did over the years, but notes Alzheimer's disease has stolen most of his life.

He says, "We know, Alzheimer's disease is a terrible disease. I work with an Alzheimer's foundation, Art Linkletter's group, raising money. I work for Alzheimer's foundation on the Memory Walks. This is a disease that hits 4 million to 6 million people right now. There is a baby-boom generation about to walk into that era, that they are going to be there, too. That's why we have to find a cure for this terrible, terrible disease. My father wrote that letter and opened himself up so we could raise money and find a cure for the future."

Late last year, People magazine published a letter from Reagan daughter Patti Davis. It said, in part:

"People often ask me how my father is doing. They want to know if he still recognizes me, if he still recognizes any of us. It makes me realize that my mother and I have been so protective of his condition since he became ill-- almost a decade now -- that it has allowed people to imagine he is still talking, still walking, still able to stumble into a moment of clarity. But it would be a disservice to every family who has an Alzheimer's victim in their embrace to say any of that is true, and I don't believe my father would want us to lie."

Michael Reagan says, "I know exactly what Patty is talking about, too, because during the national radio talk show, I have people all the time call me and they still have the feeling he's up and around watching football games and what have you. And you wish that he was, but he isn't.

"It's a debilitating disease; it takes away your mind and life," Michael says. "I think that's why Patty wrote the article, to let people know he's not different than anybody else. He's going through the same stages everybody else goes through with this terrible disease. We, as a family, support our father, support those people who have Alzheimer's disease. But we're hurt by it also, by seeing somebody that we love suffer."

The former president is bedridden now 24 hours a day. He sleeps most of the time, and he can no longer communicate, nor does he seem to possess the ability to recognize or understand.

Though Michael Reagan says he is thankful for still having his father, he notes, "It's a blessing that he's still with us in some ways. But in other ways, he's been gone quite a while. People will tell you it's a slow death, every single day. We still have him, so we're able to go up there and be with him at times. We just wish he could be with us like he was before. So we have great memories of my father.

"And I think," adds Michael, "that's why you haven't seen him in public and why Nancy hasn't had him out in public in the last few years because she wants people to remember my dad the way he was, not the way he is today. They want to remember the Great Communicator and the great look that he had. Let me tell you, he still looks dog-gone good."

Asked if Ronald Reagan's disease has brought the family closer, Michael Reagan says, "Dad has always brought us closer together. He has always had that way about him. I think in many ways it has brought us together. We have the commonality of the great love for our father and the great things he did for this country. Ultimately, we look at ourselves and why we had him, what he did for us and the great things he did for us as a father."

As for Nancy Reagan, he says, "When I was up to see her, she looked better than I thought in the last year or two. I think all the pressure of movies on TV being over, she can go back to eating real food instead of bananas. She was really uplifted because she had gone to lunch with friends from Beverly Hills and come out from the luncheon, and some young men about 30-years-old were sitting at a table. She said they saw her, and looked at her and applauded and gave her a thumbs up and said, 'Ronnie rocks.' So she said, 'You know, Michael, Ronnie rocks.' And I said, 'He sure does.'"

Here is a rundown of events planned to mark the former president's birthday:

  • Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. - A group of elementary school students will sing happy birthday, and visitors can sign cards in the museum lobby. At 11 a.m. PST, former first lady Nancy Reagan will unveil the cornerstone for a building that will eventually house the plane President Reagan used as Air Force One.
  • Reagan Museum at Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., will be re-opened after an arson fire four months ago forced it to close. The museum houses more than 3,000 items from Reagan's college days, movie and television career, as well as political artifacts.

Did you know?

Ronald Reagan is the oldest living U.S. President. He was also the oldest (at age 77) to leave office. At age 93, he has survived longer than any American president.

Before Mr. Reagan, John Adams held the record having lived 90 years, 247 days, despite all his numerous health problems.

Herbert Hoover died at age 90; Harry Truman at age 88. Gerald Ford turned 90 last July.

Some other milestones this year: both George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter will turn 80. Mr. Bush celebrates on June 12, Mr. Carter on Oct. 1. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are both 57.