In April 2012, my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at 52. That was the start of my journey with the Alzheimer’s Association. That following month, my mom and I got involved with the Walk to End Alzheimer's as volunteers and joined the Columbia Walk committee. Two years later, I became the event chair for the Columbia Walk and I’ve been the event chair for the past five years. Now I work for the Alzheimer’s Association as the Columbia, Macon and Kirksville walk manager.
In the last three years of my father’s illness, I quit my job and moved back home with my mother so we could care for my father together. It was draining. Caring for a loved one that is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is a full-time job. There are no days off. Sometimes it feels like it is never going to end. It is extremely overwhelming and it feels like you are on an island by yourself with no lifeboat.
My advice to any new caregiver is to realize that you are not alone in this disease. A lot of times it might feel like you are but there are resources out there to help you through those times.
That was the first time my mom and I both used the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline. The first time I called, it was nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what I was going to get on the other end of the phone. Thankfully I got a chance to talk to someone who was well trained, friendly and caring and I felt a sense of relief to know someone understood what my mom and I were going through.
Every diagnosis is uniquely different, but I would encourage anyone caring for a recently diagnosed loved one to lean on the Alzheimer’s Association for help. That’s what they’re there for, and that’s what my mom and I did in our time of need.
By getting involved as volunteers and committee members, my mother and I felt a strong sense of community that helped us avoid feeling closed off and alone in this disease.
Beyond just support for caregivers, the Alzheimer’s Association can give those living with the disease themselves a sense of purpose. A lot of the time after telling people you have Alzheimer’s, people generally treat you a little different. They might stop asking you to do things that you normally do. They direct their conversations and attention to the caregiver because they are unsure about what you can and cannot do.
So when my dad got involved with the Association, it gave him an opportunity to do something to help others in a similar situation, rather than just dealing with the disease himself. It gave him a chance to speak to the community and raise awareness. It gave him a sense of purpose.
During my first walk, I held on to my mom and my dad beside me as we walked the trail. I’ll never forget the courage, love and support I saw at my first walk and continue to see year after year. Every walk day is special because I get to meet new people and see the faces of old friends and know that once again, we’re not alone in this fight.
When you first hear the diagnosis sitting there with your doctor, you don’t realize there is this whole community out there fighting to try to find a cure for what you’re going through. Being able to show up to the walk and see the massive amounts of support from all of those people is pretty amazing.
The Columbia Walk to End Alzheimer’s is on Oct. 20 at the Lamb Shelter in Cosmopolitan Park. Registration begins at noon, followed by the opening ceremony at 1 p.m. and the walk after.
To start or join a team today, visit the Alzheimer’s Association at alz.org/walk. To learn more about the disease and available resources, call the toll-free Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.
Chris Cottle is the Alzheimer's Association walk manager.