Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease that can devastate families, both emotionally and financially, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said as he prepared to take the stage at the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s Saturday.
Cooney lost his mother-in-law to the disease, watching it progress quickly to sap her mental abilities even as she remained physically healthy.
“It’s devastating to the person as they’re still living and it’s very hard on families,” he said. “It’s a disease that it seems like everybody knows somebody that’s affected by it. We’re not there yet but I believe we’ll find a cure.”
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease and the most common form of dementia. More than 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s, with around 20,000 in Montana, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Cooney’s family is far from alone in its story, with more than 200 participants and volunteers in Saturday’s walk at Carroll College -- one of more than 600 that take place nationwide. The walk is a major fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association with proceeds going to research and other initiatives such as education.
“In Montana we have a big problem with accurate and timely diagnosis for a variety of reasons,” said Nick Hart, public policy lead with the association’s state chapter. “The disease is very stigmatic so people are afraid to talk about it, and I think there’s some perception from individuals and surprisingly some health care providers that pursuing a diagnosis isn’t worth it because there is no cure, no way to slow it down.”
Early diagnosis is important in allowing individuals with the disease and their families to prepare, including putting affairs in order.
“There’s a big misconception that getting an early diagnosis is something to be afraid of when in fact the opposite is true,” Hart said.
One hallmark of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the color purple, which made a partnership with Carroll College and its trademark purple a natural fit, he said. The walk is sponsored by Edward Jones Investments both nationally and with a team locally.
Andrea Rankin was joined by her mother, Mary, to tell their story. Her father was Mary’s primary caregiver but when he died in 2015, Andrea was faced with the difficulty of moving her mother to Montana and taking on the lead role.
Andrea has often felt like she takes one step forward and two steps back, reaching the point where she left her job and seeing the strain on her family. Mary moved into assisted living but has suffered several falls and also the inability to remember the falls and tell her caregivers.
“I would like to say this is all a bad dream, this can’t be happening, this can’t be real, but I can’t do that,” Andrea said. “Again and again, I have to rally for the benefit of Mom.”
The walk is also known for the display of colored flowers to demonstrate participants’ connections to the disease. Orange represents a caring member of the public. Purple signifies a lost family member. Yellow represents a caregiver. And blue signifies someone afflicted with the disease.
One by one, each group was asked to raise their flowers high in the air as the association’s executive director Lynn Mullowney offered stark but also hopeful remarks about the disease.
“You’re part of something that’s so big and so important,” she told the crowd, encouraging attendees to go out and share the message.