Family: Former Kansas City Rep. Karen McCarthy has Alzheimer's

Thursday, June 11, 2009 | 4:36 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Former Rep. Karen McCarthy, known for helping win congressional approval for a tax to support Kansas City area cultural activities, has been diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer's disease and is living in a nursing home.

McCarthy, 62, represented the Kansas City area in Congress for more than a decade before retiring in 2005.

A family statement said McCarthy also has bipolar disorder, which went undiagnosed for a decade. She has been living in a nursing home in suburban Johnson County for about a month, the statement said.

McCarthy was elected to the Missouri House in 1976 after working as a high school teacher.

In 1994, she won the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Rep Alan Wheat, who stepped down to run for the U.S. Senate. McCarthy defeated Republican Ron Freeman and was never seriously challenged again.

One of her main accomplishments was getting congressional approval for the bi-state tax in one week with intense lobbying of Republican leaders. The tax on Missouri and Kansas residents helps pay for cultural activities in the Kansas City area.

"It was a miracle," McCarthy said at the time.

In March 2003, she fell on an escalator in a House office building and cut her head. The next day, McCarthy said she had a drinking problem. Later that year, she announced she would not seek re-election and left for a monthlong stay at an Arizona rehabilitation center.

"Too often, I've put my career and helping others ahead of my own needs," McCarthy said at the time.

Her sister Lauren McCarthy and family friend Timothy Colley have been appointed McCarthy's guardians. She is "comfortable and comforted by the people who care so much about who she is, what she stands for and how the rest of her life can be led with some measure of peace and satisfaction," the family statement said.

McCarthy is single and has no children. An April car accident prompted her family to seek medical help, although the crash itself did not cause any injuries.

"The diagnosis clearly confirmed she was in the grip of both diseases" — Alzheimer's and bipolar disorder, the statement said. "It became clear to Karen's friends and family that she would be unable to be safe and secure if living in circumstances without 24-hour supervision."

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who served with McCarthy in the Missouri House in the 1980s, described her as a "terrific role model."

"She was a reformer and a very hard worker," McCaskill said. "I learned a lot about legislating from Karen McCarthy. I'm praying for her."

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