BANGOR – The early morning air on Saturday was hazy with mist off the Penobscot, but by the time the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk got under way at 9, the sun had burned through and the sky was a piercing blue. About 125 people showed up at Bass Park for the 3-mile trek through Bangor to raise funds and draw public attention to a devastating disease that affects about 30,000 Mainers.
Nationwide, about 4 million Americans suffer from the disease at an annual cost of about $90 billion.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by a progressive loss of memory, learning ability and general brain function. Early symptoms include failing judgment, personality changes and general forgetfulness. In later stages, victims are unable to recognize close friends or family members, may wander and become aggressive or combative. As the disease progresses, they typically lose all memory and the ability to speak, eat or control their bowel and bladder functions. As they become increasingly dependent on others for personal care and safety, they often must be cared for in a professional setting. The end stage of Alzheimer’s is coma and death, usually from infection.
The disease most often is diagnosed in people over 60 and is nearly twice as common in women as in men. It is thought to account for more than 65 percent of all dementia in the elderly.
Memory Walks took place in 14 Maine communities on Saturday. In Bangor, Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, dressed down in sweats and sneakers, helped kick off the event and walked the 3-mile course with the other participants. Collins, a native of Caribou, is the Senate chair of a bipartisan congressional task force that designates funding for Alzheimer’s research and treatment.
“My family has experienced the pain of Alzheimer’s,” Collins told the crowd of walkers. “I know the agonizing experience of looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing only confusion in return.”
Old Town optometrist Ann Hall and her friend Becky Boutaugh of Millinocket also were at Saturday’s fundraiser with leis of silk flowers over their sweat shirts and representing the Parrot Head Club of Maine, an organization for fans of the singer Jimmy Buffet and the carefree island lifestyle he celebrates in his music. Hall, who was pushing her bundled-up toddler Mark in a three-wheeled stroller, said her mother, Sue Hall, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 57 and died of its complications at 65.
Boutaugh’s 82-year-old father, Harold Boynton Sr., is living at home and being cared for by his wife. The couple’s seven children, Boutaugh said, are “all just trying to be supportive of our mother.” The Parrot Head Club raised $900 in donations by participating in the walk.
Alzheimer’s strikes so many people that few families are unaffected, yet its cause remains a mystery, according to Kathryn Pears, director of public policy for the Maine Alzheimer’s Association. Researchers have made progress in developing medications to help minimize symptoms and allow people to maintain their independence longer, but prevention remains a puzzle. Some evidence suggests that basic healthful lifestyle behaviors reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s – including a sensible, “heart-healthy” diet, plenty of exercise and effective stress management. Additionally, Pears said, there’s evidence that maintaining an active social and intellectual life helps keep the brain healthy and stave off the disease.
Pears emphasized that it’s important to see a physician if signs of Alzheimer’s develop, and the sooner the better. While there are many causes of dementia and no definitive way to test for Alzheimer’s, physicians are often able to rule out other disorders. Once a probable diagnosis is made, medications can control symptoms and add years of independence, productivity and enjoyment.
The Bangor Memory Walk was sponsored by about 70 local businesses and coordinated by a number of area nursing care facilities. The event raised $35,000, including individual and corporate donations. The money will stay in Maine and be used for research and direct services for patients, their caregivers and their loved ones.
The Maine Alzheimer’s Association provides many resources, including more than 50 regional support groups throughout the state, case management and educational services, community safety programs and a 24-hour toll-free help line, (800) 660-2871. The organization also provides political advocacy at the local, state and national level for public policies that support Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
Visit www.mainealz.org for more information.