Sadly, I grew up around Alzheimer’s. In 1981, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with the disease. My dad, her only child, and my mother had an addition built on our home so that they could care for her and my grandfather. Gradually, she forgot our names. She forgot her name. She forgot how to swallow. She forgot everything. For 11 years, we watched her wither away. I learned at a very early age this horrible disease impacts more than just the person diagnosed. So, when we learned my dad had younger-onset Alzheimer’s in 2003 at the age of 63, I was devastated. We all knew what was coming. The horrible history we witnessed first-hand with his mother was going to repeat itself with my father. And there was nothing anyone could do about it.
For the first couple of years after my dad’s diagnosis, he lived at home. My mother and sister were his caregivers. I was 1,500 miles away, but called him daily to check in. Often times he couldn’t even remember his last meal, so instead I asked him about things that happened years ago. We frequently talked about family vacations and outings. Since football is king in Texas, there were lots of stories about attending games together. It was hard hearing him slip away, but whenever we spoke he was happy.
Before he moved to an Alzheimer’s care facility, I considered moving home to help care for him. I shared my idea and in a moment of clarity he told me to stay in Washington, D.C. with my dream job. “Moving home won’t cure me,” he said. I stayed, but I felt incredibly helpless and isolated. One evening, I shared our family secret with my girlfriends and learned they also had family members with this horrible disease.
Drawing on the love of football with my dad and with the help of friends, I created Blondes vs. Brunettes (BvB), a powder-puff football game with the goal to increase awareness among young people about the disease and raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association. The first game was held in Washington, D.C. and organized in less than six weeks. We raised $10,000. Six months later my sister Kate, along with her friend Meredith Riddle, hosted a game in our hometown of Houston and raised thousands of dollars. Now in its seventh year, BvB is in 17 cities with 8 more cities in the works and more than $2 million dollars has been donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.
I never expected these father-daughter football moments would be the ones to make such an impact, but he always said my sister and I were winners. Perhaps we were destined to be Alzheimer’s Champions. Here’s how you can be a Champion, too:
1) OPEN your eyes. When my dad was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s I didn’t know anyone my age that had a parent with this disease. More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease – 200,000 under the age of 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Look around. If you don’t know someone that has Alzheimer’s, chances are you know someone who does.
2) Use your VOICE. While age is still the greatest risk factor, I worry that I’ve passed Alzheimer’s on to my children. I’m fortunate to have BvB as a platform to share my story and educate others about this fatal disease. You can help raise awareness by telling people about your connection to Alzheimer’s and wearing purple. I love this Alzheimer’s t-shirt from Threadless.
3) Take ACTion. Alzheimer’s is an epidemic. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the U.S. without a way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression. The National Alzheimer’s Project Act was signed into law earlier this year, but we must help keep advocacy efforts moving forward. Contact your Senator and Representative and remind them we need better services for families living with Alzheimer’s.
4) Time to MOVE. There are countless ways to promote brain health. As a little girl, I used to participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s with my family to honor my grandmother. Now my children walk with me in memory of their grandfather and great-grandmother. If a walk isn’t your speed and you’re looking to tackle Alzheimer’s disease head on, BvB is in 17 cities with 8 more cities in the works.
5) September is World Alzheimer’s Month. Join the Alzheimer’s Association in honoring the heroes that battle this disease every day. And become a hero yourself by helping to raise awareness: wear purple TODAY and help turn Facebook purple.
In the years since I founded BvB, I’ve moved from powder-puff player to coach of my own team as the mother of three little boys. My children are the inspiration I need to keep fighting for a world without Alzheimer’s. The end of Alzheimer’s starts with me. Please join me and help tackle Alzheimer’s disease.