Ronald Reagan: My Breakfast With The President

Julie Northcutt, 10/11/2011

In 1998, I was in Los Angeles attending a trade show for business.  I was the first employee in the advertising department for a new website and had convinced the dot-com start-up to purchase a booth at a trade show.  The marketing budget was still small and I would be exhibiting with what I could take and set-up in the convention center by myself. 

In order to make it happen, I called my friend Ishtar, who had been an intern at a former company I worked for and now was pursuing an acting career in L.A.  Ishtar had become like a little sister to all of us who worked with her and we had encouraged her to pursue her dream of moving to California to become an actress.  She was still trying to make ends meet, doing temporary work as a receptionist between acting gigs.  I told her I would buy her meals for the weekend if she would help me out.  She agreed.

On Sunday morning, the trade show was over and I was packed and ready to go to the airport.  Ishtar had also agreed to be my taxi cab service.  We were going to stop and have brunch on the way.  We decided to dine in Santa Monica, finally outside of the convention center.  I wanted to try to grab a moment of California sunshine before heading back to the cold Chicago winter.

Ishtar drove a used Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible, which sometimes required a roll-start.  It was cute, but drove like a go-cart and didn’t offer much trunk space.  We crammed the rest of my bags into the tiny back seat, rooftop down, and headed out.  Fortunately, it was a sunny day.  We pulled into the circle drive of Shutters on the Beach, a restaurant and hotel in Santa Monica, as they had parking and were truly located right on the beach, it seemed the perfect choice for brunch.  We then realized it was kind of a problem that the baggage would be left in the backseat of the open convertible, a welcome invitation for someone to steal it.  We asked the valet if he would watch the car and keep it in the driveway since we were on our way to the airport and wouldn’t be staying long.  He agreed and we were all set to enjoy a nice brunch at the beach.

We walked into the restaurant to ask for a table, only to be met with bad news.  The hostess told us they were fully booked for brunch and without a reservation, she could not seat us.  We then decided to beg for a table, since the car was already parked and we had little time.  We told her we were willing to sit at the bar or anywhere, if she could please let us stay.  She said if we didn’t mind, she could seat us in the breezeway section off the lobby which was not part of the restaurant.  Since the patio was closed, they had the extra tables and we would still be able to see the beach.  Our service would just be a little slower.  We took it.

We were busy chatting away, not noticing anyone else, and not caring that we were seated in the leftover section next to the hotel lobby.  Another table was seated near us and we were so absorbed in conversation that we didn’t notice them.  I was enjoying Ishtar’s stories about her recent soap opera role and an upcoming commercial she would be taping.

Then, we heard the waitress at the next table say, very loudly and slowly, as she served the plate, “Here you go, here is your fruit, be careful”.  It was noticeable enough that we both stopped talking and Ishtar said to me, “she is talking to him like he is in an old folk’s home.”

I then looked over and realized that the man sitting at the 4-top table across from me was former president Ronald Reagan.  His nurse was seated to his left and a Secret Service man was seated across from him and another Secret Service man one was seated to his right.  We could see the wires running behind their ears and their concealed guns.  Ishtar and I had actually met while working in Washington, D.C.  We had seen Secret Service men before.  It all quickly came together for us that instead of being in the worst seats in the house, we were actually dining with a former president.

I was facing directly opposite President Reagan.  When I looked over at him and smiled, he waved at me.  Then he tapped the nurse on her shoulder and pointed at me and was saying something I couldn’t completely hear.  I just smiled and waved back.  I could tell the nurse was a little nervous that we might draw attention to them, and that she was trying to figure out what to say.  I just winked at her to let her know we would be cool about things.

President Reagan kept talking to the nurse and pointing at me.  He seemed to think I was someone he knew.  Then the nurse looked at me and said, “he is flirting with you”.  The Secret Service men turned around and we all laughed and said good morning to each other.  After the laughter died down, the nurse turned back to the task of focusing the president on eating his breakfast.  One of the secret service men stood up and came over to our table.  He told us that they go for a walk on the beach with the president each morning, if the weather allows.  Sometimes they stop in for a light breakfast before going back to the house.  He said that the president wasn’t able to recognize many people anymore, beyond Nancy.  Because of this, they liked to keep a low profile.

Before beginning to eat, the president took off his baseball cap, turned it around and said “New York Yankees”, as if he were seeing his hat for the first time.  He also commented on the fact that the Yankees had won a World Series.  He was able to eat his breakfast, with prompting from the nurse.  I found myself fighting back tears because it reminded me of my own grandfather who suffered from memory loss and sometimes did not know us when we all sat down at the breakfast table.  Ishtar and I continued with our breakfast and our conversation.  Then when we were leaving, we decided to go to the bathroom before heading out.  The president’s group also was ready to leave.  There was one problem.  President Reagan did not want to get up and leave.

This also reminded me of scenes with my grandfather.  As his memory loss progressed, in the morning he would read his beloved copy of the Wall Street Journal upside down and sometimes would not recognize his own articles of clothing.  One time when I said goodbye and was driving away, my grandparents waved at me to come back.  I returned to see what was needed.  Grandpa handed me a jacket and said, “you left your coat”.  But it wasn’t my coat – it was his coat.  I told him this and then we all laughed.  Just like with President Reagan, that was all we could do in that moment.

When Ishtar and I came out of the bathroom, the secret service men were standing in the lobby, still waiting for the nurse to convince President Reagan it was time to leave.  They told us this happens sometimes, that the president doesn’t want to leave when it is time to go.  They just have to wait and eventually the president would comply with leaving.

It dawned on me that here we were, sitting in the leftover section of a restaurant with a man who was president of the United States for two terms.  Nobody noticed he was even there.  When it comes to memory loss, we are all the same, fighting the same battles.

On the way to the airport, Ishtar said to me, in true little sister fashion, “I know you’re thinking President Reagan thought you were one of those famous actresses he worked with years ago, not some neighbor he didn’t like.” 

We both had a good laugh wondering who he really thought I was, but we’ll never know, I told her, so I might as well assume the best.  We had definitely never met before but I am grateful I had the opportunity to enjoy a laugh with him.

President Ronald Reagan’s story provides an example of the caregiving challenges a family experiences when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.  President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 but his family remembers him forgetting things as early as 1987, when he commented on forgetting the names of canyons when flying over California.  He died in 2004, at age 93, from complications of the disease.  He had around-the-clock care in his home at the time. 

President Reagan could afford to pay for a nurse and for caregivers.  Full-time caregiving services can cost from $80,000 to $100,000 a year.  Eventually Alzheimer’s disease will affect the body physically, but in the beginning stages of memory loss, a senior will still need caregiving services to keep their meals and medications on track even if they are fine physically.

One of the first steps in considering senior care choices is calculating the costs of care.  Medicare does not pay for long term care in a nursing home, only for short stays after a major medical incident, such as a stroke or hip replacement.  Senior home care, provided by a licensed senior home care agency can be between $16 and $25 per hour and $160 to $300 per day, for live-in care where the caregiver can sleep at night, depending on the level of care needs. Nursing homes cost between $170 and $400 per day, depending on the location and care services.

Research nursing home daily costs and ratings and home care costs in your area as you begin your senior care planning.  While Medicare does not pay for long-term care nursing care, seniors who do not have financial assets (usually must be $2,000 or less in most states) will qualify for Medicaid benefits.  Medicaid does pay for a nursing home stay ongoing.  You can also research senior services in each state to find financial qualifications and local Area on Aging programs.

Remember, just like President Ronald Reagan, someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease may need around-the-clock care for five years or more.  The same year I met President Reagan, Vanity Fair magazine published a two-part series called “Ronnie and Nancy” which shares stories from their friends about how they coped with the disease and the team of caregivers they had to assist them, for what Nancy has called “the long goodbye”.




More background check news articles

All news articles