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How California Copes in Caring for the Brain Damaged : Despite Tragedy, Tireless Crusader Says Her Story of Struggle Has a Happy Ending

May 13, 1986|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Anne Bashkiroff wants it made clear: Her story has a happy ending. The horror of seeing her husband slowly deteriorate, transformed into a sometimes violent, often childlike parody of himself; the frustration of not understanding what was happening, finding no one who could answer her questions with compassion, no place where her husband could receive competent, loving care; the mistakes made with her husband, her son, her own psyche--it's all past.

And the tragedy, says Anne Bashkiroff, "has enriched my life."

Alzheimer's disease--put simply, it's a process of mental degeneration. Its victims lose their ability to communicate, to remember, to reason, to care for themselves, while remaining physically strong and healthy. When Sasha Bashkiroff began showing symptoms in 1969, the disease was as foreign as space travel. Although diagnosed for the first time in 1906, there was virtually no research and no popular knowledge of its symptoms or even its existence. There were Alzheimer's victims, but usually they were written off as drunks, psychos or pathetic family secrets.

Anne Bashkiroff knew her husband wasn't a drunk, didn't understand how he could suddenly become crazy, and it wasn't her style to keep him a secret. Almost overnight, it seemed, her well-ordered life became chaotic, an unending struggle to be rational in an irrational situation. And it wouldn't stop with Sasha Bashkiroff's death in 1978.

Suicide Attempt

Instead, all the craziness caught up with her and, in 1980, Anne Bashkiroff attempted suicide.

Today, at 62, she strides about the small two-story house in the Richmond district of San Francisco which she and her husband bought 27 years ago, pointing out plaques and photographs, testimonies to success--and survival. She has a book to promote, "For Sasha With Love," (Dembner Books: $16.95) written by former San Francisco Examiner staffer Gail Bernice Holland.

And she also has a gratifying awareness that had it not been for her, her struggle and her fighter's instinct, there might never have been a Family Survival Project, a statewide health-care program for the brain-damaged.

Perspective on a Nightmare

"I'm happy," she says simply. The suicide attempt, part of the total nightmare, she adds, was put in perspective by a doctor, also a friend, who pointed out to Bashkiroff that "we're all at risk."

It was her biographer, says Bashkiroff, who drew her out; who lured her to seeing past the experiences to talk about her feelings. And this day Holland has joined Bashkiroff in the plainly furnished living room, quietly sitting by, only occasionally offering a clarification, as Bashkiroff--attractive, dynamic, strong-willed--talks about all that's happened.

As it usually is with Alzheimer's disease, the nightmare is made more startling by the contrasts. Alexander Feodrovich Bashkiroff (but aways referred to as Sasha), was a handsome Russian aristocrat who fled his country just after the Revolution. He was living in Shanghai, managing the properties of Sir Victor Sassoon, when he met Anne Bernstam. He was 35 at the time. She was 15, a daughter of Russian Jews who had also fled Russia for Shanghai. Theirs is a romantic saga. They became lovers; she left Shanghai to immigrate to the United States with her family; he followed; they married. There were immigration problems so they moved to Buenos Aires. The problems solved, they returned to the United States in 1951 and eventually settled in San Francisco where he took a job as an engineer with the American Can Co. and she became a corporate secretary to Children's Hospital. They both became U.S. citizens, bought a house, had a son, Nicholas Alexander, and figured they were living the American dream.

Alzheimer's ended the dream. Anne Bashkiroff dates the beginning of the problem to 1969 when her husband, then 65 and just months away from retirement, was hospitalized for emergency kidney surgery. Nothing was the same after that, she says. His behavior was strange, erratic, childlike yet domineering. He never returned to work. As time went by, he started to call her office every few minutes asking why she wasn't home. He was physically able to care for himself but, realistically, he couldn't: He put orange juice in the coffeepot, hung saucepans on the clothes line and tore apart the kitchen plumbing.

No Magic Cure

"There were days so bleak. . . . And I was always looking for some magic cure. I mean, if you had a tumor, that could be excised. But with Alzheimer's. . . ," she shook her head. "It's like an electric circuit that goes out, one little thing after another. And me, I was like a Chinese juggling act."

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