New York Mets legend Bud Harrelson and his ex-wife Kim went public with Bud’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis this year, becoming inspirations to the people in their community, many of whom had long been inspired by Bud’s storied baseball history. We spoke with Bud and Kim about their personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease and what their lives are like today.
Kim, can you tell us a bit about Bud’s diagnosis and how that came about?
Kim: A couple of years ago, Bud showed signs of cognitive issues – difficulty putting words together and with general communication. My daughter put us in touch with a trusted neurologist. Bud underwent tests, and we were told that he did not have Alzheimer's or dementia.
But as more symptoms cropped up, we decided to visit Bud’s general practitioner, who was an expert in geriatrics. We still didn’t have a diagnosis. Finally, after more testing, the doctor said: “Kim … Bud has Alzheimer’s disease.” It was the news we were both dreading. I looked over at Bud and he was crying, which made me start crying. It’s the last diagnosis we wanted to hear. It was devastating, but having that confirmation allowed us to take action.
What was it like telling your family, especially your children? Why did you decide to go public with the diagnosis?
Kim: When we all sat down at a table with our social worker, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Each of us was able to ask questions and talk about how we felt about this new situation we were all going to be experiencing.
When it was Bud’s turn to speak, he was overcome with emotion, but the Alzheimer’s diagnosis wasn’t why. In that moment, he felt all of the love and support for him from around the table. He never had a moment of “Poor me.” It was more akin to: “What do we do now?”
It sure helps that we are “Yes!” people. We attend weekly meetings through the Alzheimer’s Association Long Island chapter and we always say “Yes!” to support. The chapter has been enormously helpful in being able to teach us about the challenges of the disease. We’ve formed a little team and family among those people.
We’ve also been so touched by the response and support from fans who love Bud; it has all been so heartfelt. Bud definitely had an emotional response to that.
Bud: Oh, wow; it has been amazing. Really amazing.
The truth is this: if I can get this disease, anyone can. If I can fight it, anyone can. People have said, “Oh, he’s Bud Harrelson, he will beat that.” We know that isn’t true. But I can fight it.
Kim: Fans refer to Bud as a hero, a World Series great, but I am most proud of his going public with his diagnosis. To me, that makes him truly astounding. We weren’t expecting or prepared for the cards and letters; complete strangers from across the country have served as a blanket of comfort for our entire family. It has been overwhelming – in a very good way!
The reaction from fans and the public gave us true affirmation that we did the right thing at the right time. We were in awe as we read a letter from someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s (also known as younger-onset Alzheimer’s) thanking Bud for going public. We also received a lot of very practical advice.
Let’s discuss a topic you are passionate about, Bud: Alzheimer’s and driving. You made the decision to give up your keys soon after your diagnosis. What advice would you give to others in this situation?
Bud: I made the decision for myself. You can hurt yourself or someone else.
I could have kept driving but right away I knew I shouldn’t. When I was in my car and felt confused, I didn’t see the sense in trying. My advice is to just not do it. There are family and friends and programs to help you get where you need to be.
Kim: Getting older isn’t easy, and one of the biggest fears of everyone I talk to in a situation like ours is the loss of independence – people white-knuckling it, holding on and not willing to let go of the privilege of driving. It’s so normal, so understandable.
All I can say is this – imagine your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia on the road, becoming confused. What if he or she makes a wrong turn, or drives the wrong way on a road?
Thankfully it was such an easy transition for Bud. Since the day of his diagnosis, he hasn’t sat behind wheel since. I so appreciate his willingness to hand the keys over and not make it any harder than it was at that time. He only had two instances of being confused behind the wheel and didn’t want to wait for a third. Bud spent a lifetime building a reputation that could’ve come down in a moment if he had had an accident after his diagnosis.
Bud, you are the only person in Mets history to take part in both World Series championships; as a player in ‘69 and as a coach in ’86. Today, you own the Long Island Ducks. What have these experiences meant to you?
Bud: I would have just taken one World Series! In fact, I am wearing the ’86 ring right now.
I think a lot of people – even my folks – guessed that New York was going to eat me up when I joined the Mets, but I never worried about that. You’re either gonna do it or you’re not gonna do it. I did it because I was lucky enough to have a good coaches and support around me. I just love baseball. I love being in the thick of it, which is why I love working with the Ducks so much right now.
Kim: He is more proud of his work with the Ducks than his career with the Mets. He gets so much satisfaction out of it. Living in Suffolk County where we raised our children and then bringing baseball back to this beautiful town is intimate and very different from big city baseball. Bud helped build the Ducks from the ground up and brought the sport into the lives of so many people.
Bud: All of my baseball coaches liked me and supported me, and that’s the love and support I still feel from fans today. And I still have some very good baseball memories.
Kim: The thread in Bud’s life from the beginning to today has been humility. Although he is humble, no one should mistake that for weakness. Bud’s presence on the field was always quite perceptive, with no fanfare or fireworks. He is a quiet presence.
When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there is a bit of darkness. There is fear involved even when you open the door and start talking about the disease, because you don’t know what your particular journey will look like. We’ve found that shining a light on Alzheimer’s illuminates the situation enough to take some of the fear away.
Going public has helped other people and it’s still a wonderful surprise for Bud that lifts his spirits. Sharing a bit of your life story and struggles is a precious GIFT. He’s always given so much of himself away.
Bud: But I’m not giving my World Series rings away!
Bud Harrelson is currently part owner of and has previously held multiple roles with the Long Island Ducks. The team will honor him on August 3 on Bud Harrelson & Alzheimer's Awareness Night with a jersey retirement ceremony. Bud will be the honorary chair of the Belmont Lake State Park Walk to End Alzheimer's on September 23.