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When former President Ronald Reagan made the difficult announcement in 1994 that he had Alzheimer's disease, he may have saved his daughter's life.
Patti Davis, 69, writes in her new memoir, "Floating in the Deep End," that she was struggling with depression and even contemplating suicide at the time her father publicly revealed his condition in a letter to the nation.
"That could have been the last straw, but instead, it gave me something to reach for and to focus on," Davis told NBC News special correspondent Maria Shriver on TODAY Thursday. "That pulled me out of my own despair."
Caring for her father in the last decade of his life marked a profound change in their often difficult relationship, even though the former president was suffering the effects of Alzheimer's.
Davis writes in her memoir that he was often detached and unavailable while she was growing up, but she rediscovered her father's spirit during his struggle with the disease. Reagan died at 93 in 2004.
"Well, here’s the thing about Alzheimer’s. You do lose the person, but you can also find them, because the disease strips away everything," Davis said. "It strips the person down to their essence."
The more Reagan's mind regressed, the closer Davis became with him.
"I felt like I saw glimpses of that near-sighted boy with an alcoholic father who spent hours in his room, reading books," she said.
She writes that while his mind suffered from Alzheimer's, his soul remained intact.
"That was my grounding for that whole decade," Davis said. "I did feel like I was seeing through to his soul."
Helping care for her father also brought Davis closer to her mother, former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died at 94 in 2016. Davis is the older of the couple's two children. She writes that she had always been frightened of her mother, but Ronald Reagan's diagnosis changed that relationship.
"She really was sort of the architect of our fractured family, and then her husband, her soulmate, the love of her life, gets Alzheimer’s, but she didn’t know how to let anybody in," Davis said. "And so rather than responding with resentment to her, or judgment, I really learned to have sympathy for her, compassion."
Davis witnessed a side of her mother she had rarely seen.
"Like the moment when she broke down and cried in my arms, which was so stunning, because I don’t remember us ever embracing at all," Davis said.
Years after her father's death, Davis continued her work with Alzheimer's disease when she started a support network called Beyond Alzheimer's to help other caregivers cope.
"I’ve always said to people, you’re not going to be the same person at the end of this journey as you were at the beginning," Davis said. "You’re either going to be harder, more brittle, more closed off, or you’re going to be softer, more open, more compassionate. It’s a matter of choice, and it’s the choices you make every step of the way."