The Atlantic (January 9, 2014): A Lesser-Known Dementia That Steals Personality

Publication Date: 
Thu, 01/09/2014

It was the annual Labor Day tradition for the Savini family, a makeshift version of The Gong Show performed before the neighborhood on a wooden deck stage at their beach house in Massachusetts. In past years, Nicole Savini’s mom and friends dressed up in nightgowns as the housewives version of The Supremes, singing “Stop in the Name of Love” into wooden spoons.

To the Savinis each year, it’s seriously funny business—as if they’re performing at the Apollo, said Nicole, 36, whose humorous background has influenced her sensibilities at The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, where she is a senior producer. The theme this year involved a tongue-in-cheek skit on global warming, with the family singing rewritten lyrics to “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” complete with a fake weathercast warning of Sharknado’s arrival, as well as the Lobster-pocolypse and Clamageddon. Nicole’s dad, John, dressed up as a shark from Jamaica.

But one person was emotionally absent from the production, though physically present: Nicole’s mom, Kathy.

For most of Nicole’s life, her mother would get into the spirit of “The Gong Show,” dressing up in costume, practicing the choreography and lines. Instead, this year a special seat had been reserved for her among the lawn chairs in the audience, and while everyone else cracked up, Kathy didn’t react.

Five years ago, Nicole’s mother — who had always been an attractive, clever, fun-spirited woman — began zoning out and overeating. She eventually stopped laughing at the family’s wisecracks. Kathy had worked as a librarian at a local school for a decade, but she started snapping at the kids in a manner that was out of character, saying things like, “I’ll break your fingers if you touch that again.” The Savini family, always quick with one-liners, might have found it funny if Kathy had been joking — except she wasn’t.