Former CBS News correspondent and virtuoso flutist Eugenia Zukerman has performed as a soloist with many of the world's finest orchestras. Eugenia is author of "Like Falling Through a Cloud", releasing November 5, which documents her experience as a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Read our Q&A with Eugenia and learn how she uses the power of music in her journey with Alzheimer’s disease.
Eugenia, tell us about your Alzheimer’s diagnosis and how your family played a role.
Two and a half years ago, my daughters took me to the doctor after noticing that I was stumbling over words and having some difficulty communicating. They were insistent that I had tests done, so I went to Columbia Hospital in New York to see a neurologist.
After talking about my background and what I had been experiencing, having an MRI and taking the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) and the Mini-Cog tests, I learned I had Alzheimer's. Oddly enough, I wasn’t afraid. Soon after, I started writing, and what came out was all in verse with a natural rhythm.
What was the process of writing “Like Falling Through a Cloud” like for you?
It just started; it came from nowhere. I've written a lot of poetry, but I didn’t know where this writing was going to lead. I asked my daughter Natalia to take a look at what I was putting on paper and if she thought it was anything significant. She said to keep going, and I did.
I think that true artists deal with emotions by expressing them through art, music and poetry. The process never felt frantic, nor did it worry me where it was or wasn’t going. The words flowed out of me. All I knew at the time was that I was writing happy things, sad things and about music. Much to my surprise, I found a publisher to make a book out of it.
My book is hopeful and about living in the moment. People have told me that it’s funny and honest and that means a lot to me. I’m not afraid of this disease. While I know that it would be ridiculous to think that I would wake up one day and no longer have Alzheimer’s, I choose to see the positive rather than the negative.
And you continue to play music.
“When I first heard the flute being played at my school by a professional musician, it was like magic. I was absolutely entranced. I immediately ran home and asked my parents if I could play. The excitement and anticipation surrounding the instrument was thrilling.” - Eugenia Zuckerman
Music is in my blood. My parents both played the piano, my father sang and my mother was a dancer.
Whether or not I have an upcoming concert, I practice every day. I wake up in the morning and reach for the flute. The comfort of that makes me feel alive, and I have always relied on making music in difficult times. My flute is my best friend, my not-so-silent silent partner. Except I have to go to it; it doesn't come to me!
Since my Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it's been even more important and meaningful to me. Without it, I would feel extremely alone. My daughter Natalia talks to me about how music resides in a different part of the brain, the part where language and memory don’t live. She can’t imagine that this instrument is not helping me. It certainly seems like it is.
What are you looking forward to?
Besides still playing the flute and still traveling for my concerts, I am also very busy at home in the country with all my animals, which include horses, dogs and cows. There is a lot to do in my area; I am always making new friends! I am physically in good shape and I exercise every day. For 74, I like to think that I am still pretty spry.
Writing my latest book was an incredibly unusual and happy experience. I have even more travel planned for the book tour, which includes an audiobook version that I recorded as well. I look forward to engaging with more people and learning about their experiences with Alzheimer’s, too. I recently played on flute at the Alzheimer’s Association Fall Benefit in New York City on October 22. I was introduced by Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, who founded the event in honor of her mother actress Rita Hayworth. Her devotion to finding a cure to Alzheimer’s is truly amazing! I played “Syrinx” by Claude DeBussy, and then read some poems from my book. To my delight, I received a standing ovation … every performer’s dream! Even more important is that the Alzheimer’s Association raised over $1 million from the event … thanks go to all the Association’s contributors!
Everyone is at a different level or place in their diagnosis. For whatever reason, I wasn’t afraid to open up and talk about it. Perhaps I am just not a very fearful person. When I got my diagnosis, I was still cracking jokes, because that’s who I am.
The more I am able to think positively, be socially-involved, active and open to trying new different things, the better. I am still me, and Alzheimer’s is an experience that will go where it goes. I still have time to enjoy the fullness of life and time with all of my family and friends.
This disease hasn’t changed me yet. I continue to be who I want to be.
About Eugenia: Eugenia Zukerman graduated from the Juilliard School of Music. She served as artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival for 13 years. Eugenia also interviewed and created more than three hundred portraits as the Arts Correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, for which she received an Emmy nomination for broadcast journalism. She is currently the artistic director of Classics on Hudson in Hudson, NY, engaging artists, performing and working in partnership with the administration of the Hudson Opera House.
An excerpt from Eugenia’s memoir “Like Falling Through a Cloud”:
You Don’t Have to Tell Me
I am no dope
I see how my family notes
my lapses and losses
of appropriate words
or a name
or a date
it makes me fretful
to be forgetful
so I try to hide it
but it’s out there
the lapses and losses
and I know
there is not a cure
for my fragile mind
but being no dope
I will try to find
the best way to cope
and I won’t dance the woe is me
or bathe in a tub of self pity
I am not suited to it
I simply will not do it
my own way
which is the only
Music and Alzheimer’s