Nobel laureate’s wife talks about coping with husband’s Alzheimer’s


TAIPEI, Taiwan — The wife of a Nobel laureate suffering from Alzheimer’s urged governments everywhere on Monday to allocate more resources for the treatment of the disease that is taking a great toll on affected families. Speaking about the condition of her husband, 77-year-old Chinese-American Charles K. Kao, to Taiwanese patients and their relatives, Gwen Kao admitted to feeling some regret that she had not been more aware of the debilitating disease. “I wish I had learned more about Alzheimer’s before,” said Kao, who recalled that the family usually laughed off her husband’s absent-mindedness when he forgot his wallet and keys rather than being alert to what it might indicate.

But the fame of her Nobel Prize-winning husband, known as the “Father of Fiber Optic Communications,” is now helping her raise awareness of the disease so that others will be more attuned to dealing with its consequences than she was. Charles Kao’s condition first received widespread media attention when he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2009, as his wife had to deliver his address at the award ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 8, 2009, because of his difficulty speaking. Prior to that event, the Hong Kong government was not very aware of Alzheimer’s, Gwen Kao said. She furthered the cause in September this year when she established the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease in Hong Kong, which is devoted to helping more families of patients struck with Alzheimer’s by enhancing dementia-related services. Aside from raising public awareness and understanding about the disease through the organization, she has also urged cooperation among organizations and governments to allocate more resources for Alzheimer’s care. In describing the onset of Alzheimer’s in her husband, Kao said the first warning sign came when professor Kao took a train in an opposite direction. While a normal person would have corrected the mistake immediately, her husband did not know what to do and ended up calling her. Kao said the disease left her husband insecure and dependent on others. Aware of his own limitations, he preferred to have her take care of everything, including all the paperwork needed for institutions he was involved with after retirement. His brain continued to deteriorate to the extent that he couldn’t even finish a simple jigsaw puzzle or remember new dancing steps. He would stop several times, feeling angry and then going to bed, and Gwen Kao said the emotional toll was tremendous. “It’s not like a normal death where the body is gone,” she said. “The wound stays open and never heals.”