Alzheimer's walk organizers hope to raise awareness, funds
By Janelle Faignant
Correspondent | September 03,2014
Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo ¬ Participants in the 2013 Walk To End Alzheimer's put on by the Alzheimer's Association are seen at the starting line in Main Street Park on Saturday morning.
Enthusiastic family, friends and co-workers gathered recently at Merchants Hall in downtown Rutland for a kickoff rally for the 2014 Rutland Walk to End Alzheimer's.
The goal of the walk — set for 9 a.m. Sept. 13 at Main Street Park — is to raise $10,000 for the cause, according to committee co-chairman Thomas Donahue, who is also executive vice president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. And supporters are already halfway to that goal with $5,000 in hand.
Donahue has been involved in the walk to raise awareness and funds for the support and research of Alzheimer's for several years. One of the reasons he got involved was his own personal experience with it.
“My father had Alzheimer's, and my family supported him through it for about 12 years,” he said. “Eventually (the disease) takes you, and there's no other outcome. And sadly it takes you very slowly. Most people associate it with memory, but what happens is your body stops functioning. It's very difficult to watch.”
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease; the symptoms grow worse over time, and at present are irreversible. Symptoms vary from person to person but all those diagnosed suffer from memory loss, disorientation and thinking ability.
Eventually everyday activities become impossible without full-time care. As it progresses, more of the brain is affected and basic functions like swallowing and breathing gradually decline. From the onset of symptoms, the average person with the disease lives eight to 20 years. Scientists don't yet know what causes it.
Donahue said there are a lot of people in the Rutland community and in Vermont who are affected by Alzheimer's, both directly or indirectly. According to the Alzheimer's Association 5.2 million Americans were diagnosed last year. An estimated 5 million were 65 and older, and 200,000 younger than 65 were diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.
“It's surprising that for some reason people have not talked or shared much about it,” he said. “I'm not sure why but I think there's a bit of a stigma around beginning to lose your faculties. I'm sure there's some embarrassment.”
When Donahue learned of his father's diagnosis he didn't know about Alzheimer's Vermont — an organization with resources Donahue said could have helped not only to make his father's life better, but the caregivers' lives better as well.
“If you have someone you know or someone in your family that you're going to be going through it with, a lot of the information Alzheimer's Vermont can provide can make that experience a lot easier,” he said. “Because it's particularly hard on whomever ends up as the main caretaker.”
Among the group of about 40 people at the kick-off rally, more than a dozen proudly donned t-shirts reading “Team Duck.” They were family of Dawn and Michael Bruce of Rutland, who lost Dawn's father, Donald G. Rivers Sr., to the disease.
“We're walking for Dawn's father who we lost this past December,” Michael Bruce said.
Rivers was a father of nine, grandfather of 21 and great-grandfather to 24. He moved to Castleton in the 1970s where he worked with the town as part of the road crew, who gave him the nickname “Duck.”
“Like Donald Duck,” Bruce explained to laughs from the room. “That's why we're calling our team 'Team Duck.'”
“Our goal is that one day no other family will have to go through the pain of watching a loved one struggle to do the basics,” Dawn Bruce said. “They won't have to see a loved one struggle to find a name that is somewhere in their mind, and get upset with themselves when they can't come up with it. We are walking this year to try to make a difference.”
The family organized a spaghetti dinner and raffle a few weeks ago to raise money for Alzheimer's, and they saw support from the community pour in. All of the food was donated, and the American Legion Post 50 lent their hall free of charge. The Bruces are organizing another fundraiser, which will be a motorcycle ride, with the money raised to be donated to Alzheimer's reshearchas well.
“As a family we have discovered that Alzheimer's doesn't discriminate,” Dawn Bruce said. “We hope that our efforts will help bring more awareness to this disease, and also provide a little more money to help in the search for a cure.”
“There's that higher calling,” Donahue said. “Which is to try to find answers and potential prevention. Not just cures but prevention.”
“What I would say to folks is there's so many shining moments while that person is with us,” he said. “It's important to learn how to interact so you can enjoy those moments.”
Which is why Donahue said they're keeping the focus of the walk on fun.
“The Rutland walk is actually a lot of fun because it's a short walk,” Donahue said. The route starts at Main Street Park and goes through downtown Rutland, looping back to the park.
“It's a nice walk and there's music and dancing and lots of camaraderie, so it's a very upbeat event,” Donahue said.
“Keep your humor, that's what's going to get us through this,” Jeannie Stimpfel, who lost her mother to the disease said. “It's so important that we talk. We get the word out about Alzheimer's, because just like cancer 20 years ago, now it's not a bad thing to talk about. So many of us are affected by Alzheimer's and we need to talk about it.”
“Some of the highlights from my time in my father's whole life were when he had Alzheimer's,” Donahue said. “We had some of the most wonderful personal moments together during that experience. And it's kind of fun because what they do is they end up living in the moment. They may not be able to remember the day before, but they know that they're having a good time that day.”
Donahue and his family tried to keep the focus on doing things his father liked to do.
“He used to be a pilot at one time, so we'd go to the airport and see the planes. He loved to go to church so every week we attended Mass together. So what you do is assist them in getting to the places to spend their day and their quality of life is much better.”
As of last week there were already 10 teams registered and 59 walkers.
“It seems to grow every year,” Donahue said. “So I think it's moving in the right direction.”