Muhammad Ali has been courageously fighting Parkinson’s diseases for 30 years. The story of Muhammad Ali’s caregiving is about a brave, loving, compassionate, devoted, and spiritual couple joining hands to fight this insidious disease.
Lonnie Ali has painstakingly fought in her husband’s corner for many challenging and long years.
In an AARP interview, Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife for many years, explains what they have been going through in their struggle with the former heavyweight champion’s battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“Parkinson’s has taken away a lot from this man — a lot that would put people in bed make them cover their heads and never look up. He has a lot to be depressed about. The adjustment [has been] terrific. But I think he is secure in who he is, and about his place in history. That’s not to say Parkinson’s hasn’t changed him — it has. But he still has enough sense of self and dignity that he maintains.”
Muhammad Ali and his family’s struggle to cope with Parkinson’s disease is similar to what millions of caregivers endure every day in America. Many people exert tremendous effort in trying to cope with the guilt, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, exasperation, joy, and the challenge of learning how to accept the new way of life.
Lonnie says faith plays an integral role.
“We are on this journey for a reason, I know that — whether it was to bring attention to this illness [or] whether it was to save his mortal soul. Muhammad is a very spiritual person. Lord knows this has made him more reflective and pensive.”
Lonnie talks about the challenges patients and caregivers face in dealing with the crippling disease.
“The hardest part for any caregiver, whether it is a child, parent, or spouse, is the relationship change. The relationship changes over time with the illness. Physically, [patients] are not as mobile; they are not able to do things with you like they used to. The medications might affect their cognitive ability. They may not be able to speak as well. That is where you [transition] from a wife or a husband to a care partner or caregiver.”
Lonnie warns of the biggest potential danger for caregivers.
“Caregivers must guard against becoming bitter because you feel like your life is being robbed from you. And to not let the person you are caring for become bitter in the sense that they feel guilty — ‘I am robbing you of your life.’ That just makes [the] depression even worse. To be honest, I can deal with Parkinson’s all day. Depression is scary. It affects everyone differently. Trying to get past that slippery slope, and getting them out of that hole, is not easy.”
For decades, Muhammad Ali was one of the world’s most admired and famous people. He was not only as a superior boxer; he also stood up and fought for racial justice and religious tolerance. However, Ali has become private in recent years. In addition, his ability to speak has also deteriorated.
Lonnie Ali, a 57-year-old with degrees from UCLA (Master of Business Administration) and Vanderbilt University (psychology), is a committed mother and wife.
Lonnie’s advice to Parkinson’s disease caregivers includes using a number of coping mechanisms.
One piece of sound advice she offers is to make sure the caregiver takes care of the caregiver. She says, “I know if something happens to me, it is going to be bad for him.”
She also advises all caregivers to seek help if they think need it.
“As long as Muhammad was fairly independent, it wasn’t a big deal. But when he required more attention, I would be stupid not to think I didn’t need some assistance. Frankly, I could not do this if my sister did not live with us.”
Being well organized, as well as up-to-date on Parkinson’s disease research and education is vital, according to Lonnie.
“When you get up, you have to start planning their day. What am I going to make for breakfast? What is he going to wear? What doctor appointments does he have? What are we going to do today?”
Lonnie also has to keep close tabs on when Muhammad has to take his medication and other activities.
“We have a daily sheet, because you forget things. What time did he get up? How did he sleep? When did he last go to the bathroom?”
Muhammad Ali, the man known as “The Greatest,” rarely whispers a complaint.
Lonnie Ali, his wife for more than 50 years had the following to say about her husband.
“This is the beauty of Muhammad. He has made this illness, as horrible as it is; as much as it has taken away from him serve him in some way. If there was ever anyone who always lands on his feet, and comes out smelling like a rose, it is Muhammad. It is his remarkable attitude toward life. He never has let anything stand in his way.”
George Zapo, the writer of this story, met Muhammad Ali in the summer of 1984 on a downtown street corner in Los Angeles, California.
Muhammad was standing on the corner, shaking hands with a crowd of people and one-by-one he signed autographs on book covers of literature he was passing out.
When George slowly approached the former heavyweight champion of the world, George stumbled and stammered in trying think of what to say to the world famous figure and humanitarian.
Finally, when it was George’s turn to shake Muhammad Ali’s hand and get his autographed book, George took hold of the champion’s huge hand, looked up to the champ and said, “Thank you, Mr. Ali. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
In typical fashion, which perhaps applies even more today, Muhammad Ali lowered his head, looked down at George, starred into his eyes and whispered, “I’m still working.”
[Featured image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]