Smith's new book aims to shed light on her struggle with Alzheimer's

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B. Smith and her husband, Dan Gasby, write about her disease.

The world lost one of its highest-profile Alzheimer's advocates on Sunday when Nancy Reagan died.

Whatever you think of the first lady or her late husband, you have to give her props for supporting embryonic stem-cell research following his 1994 Alzheimer's diagnosis.

That's the thing with many of us. Often, we are one diagnosis away from becoming similarly energized.

Take former restaurateur B. Smith. Back in the 1970s, she was a pioneering fashion model who was the first African-American ever featured on the cover of Mademoiselle.

Smith, now 66, went on to own landmark restaurants in New York City, Washington, and Sag Harbor, N.Y. Along the way, she starred in her own TV program; edited a lifestyle magazine; and created a line of products sold at Bed Bath & Beyond.

But all of that was before her life-shattering Alzheimer's diagnosis in 2013.

She talks about her struggle in her new book, Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer's (Harmony Books, $25).

I have to confess, it sat on my desk unopened for weeks. I was put off by the topic. I didn't want to think of Smith's having Alzheimer's. That was a disease for old folks. Not someone as vibrant and healthy appearing as B. Smith. Fans called her the black Martha Stewart, but she was much more than that.

She did everything with soul. I can still taste her Swamp Thang, one of her iconic menu items, made with collard greens, seafood, and dijon cream sauce. I own every single one of her cookbooks. I've tweaked her black- eyed pea soup recipe so many times, it's almost like I created it. She not only put her foot in the food, as the old Southern saying goes, but she gave readers ideas on how to throw a Juneteenth celebration or a bid whist party.

The thought of Smith's being disheveled and mindlessly wandering alone through the streets of New York City at night is heartbreaking.

"It's the ultimate form of degradation and lack of dignity," Dan Gasby, Smith's husband and coauthor, told me Tuesday by phone. "It's messy. It's not fun. And it's personal. The person you are dealing with is doing things that are irrational."

He started noticing in 2013 that Smith was repeating herself and forgetting things. Her family didn't realize it then, but Smith was at the beginning of what would become a long descent down a tortuous path.

Alzheimer's is an insidious disease that afflicts roughly 5.3 million Americans. It robs sufferers of their cognitive abilities while simultaneously draining the lives and resources of caregivers. Nancy Reagan, whose husband reportedly suffered with it for at least a decade, once referred to it as "the long, long goodbye."

There were early signs that Smith was slipping, but Gasby didn't realize what they meant. He just knew that he and his wife were having more flare-ups than they'd ever had.

She would do things like leave his wallet on the top of her car and then drive off. Her once-pristine closet became a jumbled mess. Police brought a pajama-wearing Smith back to their hotel room in New Orleans once after she had been sleepwalking. And then, there was the time that Smith, a regular on NBC's Today cooking segments, froze while doing live TV.

"As I watched from the green room, I saw B. take her place at the food table and slip happily into conversation with cohosts Peter Alexander and Savannah Guthrie," Gasby writes. "Then it was as if B. stopped hearing what they were saying. One of them asked her a question. Instead of answering, she just kind of went blank. Ten seconds is an eternity on live television; B. stood there for longer than that.

"I stood up in that empty room, horrified as I looked at the screen. Memory lapses

- okay, sure. But B. was a pro. She knew the first rule of live television: fill the space. If you don't know the answer, say something else; they can't go back and ask it again. Tell them about how your mother made buffalo wings and boiled shrimp when you were a girl. Tell about how you just went to New Orleans and had chicken and shrimps (sic) there. But no - nothing. Just the deafening sound of television silence. Finally Savannah and Peter started talking to each other as B. nodded and smiled, and the spot concluded at last."

Shortly afterward, Smith got the crushing diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer's. Only 5 percent of sufferers contract the disease before age 65 the way Smith did. Experts aren't sure why some people get it so much earlier than others, and say much more research is needed.

For Gasby, Before I Forget is a call to action particularly to African-Americans, who are two to three times more likely to contract the disease than whites, according to the African-American Network Against Alzheimer's. More blacks need to participate in clinical trials to help researchers determine why that is.

He concedes, though, that a cure most likely won't be found in time for his wife, who around the time of her diagnosis had been in talks to open a restaurant in Philadelphia. These days, the former lifestyle diva needs supervision even going to the bathroom at night. She still takes pleasure, though, in doing small things, such as walking their dog on the beach near their home in Sag Harbor.

"We're doing everything we can to keep her in a good place," Gasby said.

@JeniceArmstrong

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