Annual Memory Walk takes steps toward understanding, finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease

Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Alzheimer's Association outreach coordinator Teresa Birk, left, and volunteer Nora Speight speak Sunday about how Alzheimer's disease and dementia have affected their lives. Speight got involved with the organization after her mother was diagnosed with the disease because she "wanted to know everything I could about it." The women attended a benefit concert for the association at New McKendree United Methodist Church in Jackson ahead of Saturday's Memory Walk. (Laura Simon)

When Dolly Jewel's husband first started showing signs of Alzheimer's disease in the early 1990s, she didn't know the term "Alzheimer's" or the indicators of the disease.

"When he first started showing signs, I didn't know what was going on, honestly," Jewel said. "That frightened me a little bit. After his diagnosis, I started researching and reading everything I could find about it, which was very limited. There was only one book and one medicine available, and my husband wasn't even able to take it because of the side effects."

Her husband, a retired college science professor when he started showing signs of Alzheimer's, struggled to keep up with the household finances. He would sometimes spend half a day working with a bank statement trying to line up the checks with the assets, Jewel said.

"It was frustrating that I couldn't find information in the beginning," Jewel said.

She said Alzheimer's didn't come to the forefront with the American people until Ronald Reagan admitted he was struggling with the disease in the 1990s.

In 1994, Jewel found support groups held by a newly initiated Southeast Missouri chapter of the Alzheimer's Association and started attending immediately.

"I was thrilled," she said. This was "something that would be there for me and help me determine what was going on and that his behavior was not uncommon to the disease."

Joining the group was merely Jewel's steppingstone into becoming an active member of the Alzheimer's Association. Jewel served as the association's secretary and became president of the Southeast Missouri region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though she did not walk in the first Memory Walk in Southeast Missouri in 1996, Jewel has participated in the walk for more than 10 years.

"Dolly's Team" will be represented at the 14th annual Memory Walk on Saturday at Cape County Park North. Her team includes family and friends who have been affected by Alzheimer's in some way.

Teresa Birk, outreach coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association in Southeast Missouri, said the walk is a "day of mixed emotions."

"We have a tribute ceremony [in addition to the walk] where flags are raised in tribute to people who battled or are still battling with Alzheimer's," Birk said. "It helps us remember what we're here for but also brings hope as well."

Birk said she anticipates 500 people will attend the walk, based on current registration.

"We have more than 40 teams currently registered, as well as many individuals," she said. "We are pleased that this will likely be our largest attendance."

The largest team registered comes out of Southeast Missouri Hospital, with 112 team members. It is the biggest team in the history of the area Memory Walk.

Birk said the event has grown tremendously since the first walk in 1996, expanding to include a large number of sponsors, vendors, families and supporters. The event is designed to be family-friendly, including a play area with face painting, games, a moon bounce and a fun run following the walk.

Food and beverages will be provided for the walk, as well as tribute flags for anyone who wishes to honor a family member affected by Alzheimer's. Several raffles will also be taking place.

But the focus of the day is the walk itself. It is the association's largest fundraiser. The money raised by participating teams supports research and services for people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia, Birk said.

"Funds are used to provide 24-hour helpline support, research, family and community education programs, professional education in dementia care, local support groups and services," Birk said. "In 2009, the Alzheimer's Association provided 24-hour helpline support to 2,133 new local families in Southeast Missouri, offered 31 local family and community education programs reaching 859 people, trained 1,205 professionals in dementia care in Southeast Missouri, and hosted nine support groups in six regional counties."

The Memory Walk raised around $55,000 last year, and Birk said the goal for this year is $60,000.

The Alzheimer's Association works all year to raise awareness and work toward a cure; November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month, which will provide more opportunities for other events. In addition to the association, area hospitals and other organizations offer support and help seek a cause for Alzheimer's.

Carol Dippold at Lutheran Family and Children Services provides different support and educational programs for those affected by Alzheimer's in the region.

The Memory Matters Group formed in January 2009 and meets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays. The group concentrates on people suffering from early onset Alzheimer's.

"We have a variety of activities, memory building exercises, socialization, snacks, lunch; different things like to help keep them engaged and active," Dippold said. "Memory loss can be for anyone with dementia. [Participants] may not be diagnosed yet, but are still having problems with memory loss and want to join."

Her newest group, starting Monday, will consist of around eight participants and will service those with advanced memory loss. While participants in the Memory Matters group have more cogitative capabilities and can do activities to keep the brain active, the newest group is more focused on well-being.

"Though their memory may not be showing any improvement, keeping their well-being up is good," Dippold said. This is more "of a sensory, hands-on social group. We'll explore more with music, art, creative projects, body movement and dance."

The services Dippold and the Lutheran Center provide are in line with the mission of the Alzheimer's Association. Anyone interested in learning more about Alzheimer's or concerned about a loved one is welcome to attend the Memory Walk and can register the day of if need be.

"We encourage as many people to be involved as possible," Birk said. "The day provides support and meaning to the many families that have been impacted."

Jewel agreed and said she's grateful for the wealth information and support available these days for Alzheimer's.

"Back then, I didn't know all the things that we're going on," said Jewel, whose husband passed away in 1997. "I didn't know the stages. There were a lot of unknowns. The association has tremendously helped increase the wealth of knowledge."

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