November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregiver Month. An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's.
U.S. President Barack Obama called upon the people of the United States to learn more about Alzheimer's and to offer support to people living with the disease, as well as their caregivers.
Alan Arnette, a 55-year-old mountain climber, was one of those caregivers. His sport and his job, as an IT company executive, took a back seat when his mother, Ida, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.
“So, after a 30-year career, I took early retirement to oversee the last three years of her journey through the disease," Arnette says. "And as she was going through the disease, I learned a lot. I didn’t know a lot about Alzheimer’s disease before.”
After his mother’s death, Arnette felt sad and helpless. But not for long.
“I thought if I could combine my passion for climbing in a way to help educate people, to raise awareness and more tangibly to try to raise a million dollars for research funds, then this might make a difference.”
Arnette decided to climb the tallest mountain on each of the world's seven continents. He called it “The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories are Everything Campaign.”
“I took a satellite phone with me and I did very extensive blogging. Almost every day, I would post a new dispatch, along with pictures and videos from each one of the climbs.”
And from the highest point on each mountain, Arnette dedicated his climb to some aspect of the disease.
“For example, in Antarctica, I dedicated it to early onset. I had a good friend at age 52, she had just been diagnosed, so it was fresh in my mind. Of course, Mount Everest, I dedicated it to my mom, Ida, and to all the moms out there with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Stepping toward the mainstream
Eric Hall, founder and president of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), says raising awareness about Alzheimer’s is the first step towards making it a mainstream disease, like cancer or diabetes, which helps raise money for research.
“Activities such as that, the courageous, heroic individuals, that are doing extraordinary feats,or participating in various ways to raise awareness, to raise funds, that’s ultimately where we need to go because it has not become mainstream.”
The AFA focuses on providing support for Alzheimer’s patients and their families, including teenagers.
“It is true that one to four individuals caring for an individual who has Alzheimer’s disease, happens to be a teenager who every day is helping out their parents in providing the hands-on care, whether it is bathing or feeding or simply sitting and holding their loved ones’ hand.”
Impacting the young
Elizabeth Owens,19, has done that. The University of South Carolina sophomore helped set up the nation’s first AFA on-campus club.
“My grandfather had Alzheimer’s," Owens says. "He actually passed away in January. When I decided to do this, I was looking at it as a method of coping after my grandfather passed away. He and I were really close. It was difficult for me to handle his passing.”
Although it was founded just a few months ago, the club already has 30 members.
“Our goal is to educate people and to volunteer with nursing homes and hospices that specialize in Alzheimer’s care. The disease, up until recently, was always referred to just as 'getting old.' I think it’s really important that people are educated and aware that Alzheimer’s is not just getting old and getting forgetful. It is a disease and there needs to be research and medications and cures developed.”
Spreading the word
That’s the message mountain climber Arnette has been spreading from the world’s highest peaks over the past 11 months on his blog.
“I call it a message of hope that we’ll find a cure. We reached 13 million people. We’ll reach a lot more people and people will be motivated to make donation to Alzheimer’s causes.”
With seven summits now behind him, Arnette plans to continue his campaign to raise awareness and money. Moving mountains, he says, to make a difference in the lives of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease.