(Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg)
Thousands of Americans affected by Alzheimer's disease are expected to march through Washington D.C. next month for the "Walk to End Alzheimer's." Organized by the Alzheimer's Association, the event will converge on the National Mall Nov. 5 and raise awareness and funds for combating the neurological malady.
"There has never been a greater need for the citizens of the metro Washington region to join in the fight against Alzheimer's disease by participating in the 'Walk to End Alzheimer's,'" said Susan Kudla Finn, president and CEO of the Association's National Capital Area chapter. "Funds raised will provide care and support services to the 80,000 local residents living with Alzheimer's and their families and caregivers, while also contributing to advancing critically-needed research."
Cindy Schelhorn, the Association's director of communications and marketing for its National Capital Area chapter, said Alzheimer's remains the nation's sixth largest cause of death given it lacks a cure. It causes dementia and memory loss in its victims, eventually resulting in death. Some 5.4 million Americans are currently diagnosed with the sickness, Schelhorn added, a number that could become some 16 million by 2050 without a cure.
"Alzheimer's is not a mental illness," she said. "It is a physical deterioration of the brain. Throughout its course, the brain unlearns what it knows to do. We need people to be advocates against this disease and for Capitol Hill to get involved."
Schelhorn said her organization's event would be a great way of achieving that goal given it expects 2,000 people to participate in the walk. She said 333 teams had signed up to participate so far, and donations are already over $323,000, out of a $520,000 goal.
"I grew up with Alzheimer's," she shared. "I was 15 when my father was diagnosed. It was a shocking, confusing and isolating experience. There was nowhere to go for support at that time."
Eric J. Hall, president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, said more Americans will understand the disease as it becomes increasingly prevalent over the next few years. Given that advanced age is its greatest risk factor, he said his organization believes baby boomers will be especially hard hit over the next generation. As such, he said a greater comprehension of Alzheimer's will prove crucial in the decades to come.
"Alzheimer's is right now shrouded with fear and stigma," Hall said. "In the absence of a cure, care makes all the difference. Early diagnosis and treatment can afford a longer, more quality life."
A recent example of public insensitivity to Alzheimer's came from controversial comments made by well-known televangelist Pat Robertson in September. Hearing about a married couple where one spouse had the illness, he advocated divorce as an option for the other.
"I know it sounds cruel but if he's going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again," Robertson said during a broadcast of his show "The 700 Club," "[and] make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her."
Hall noted that Alzheimer's doesn't just assault its victims, but their loved ones as well. The high cost of caring for an Alzheimer's patient, he said, often meant that friends and family end up personally supporting their loved ones at home. The end result, he concluded, is often extreme financial and emotional stress.
"Many caregivers exist in a sense of isolation," Hall said. "They need support. This isn't a journey people should take alone."
Schelhorn said an event like the "Walk to End Alzheimer's" could give those suffering from the disease the community they need. More importantly, she added, gathering those afflicted by its reach would draw much-needed attention to their plight.
"Alzheimer's should be a national priority as it wreaks enormous damage on families," she said. "We want to achieve a world without Alzheimer's. This walk is an absolutely fabulous and uplifting event."