Carlman: Alzheimer’s shows no mercy in Naperville or elsewhere

Mom laughed. It was an event.

It happened two weeks ago, during a visit from two of my sisters and me. Joan, her eldest daughter, was coaxing out a little cheer with a quick round of peek-a-boo. We saw the corners of Mom’s mouth turn up, and her belly shook with a couple of quiet giggles.

Not that long ago, she was virtually always distinguished by her twinkling eyes and omnipresent smile, a demeanor my sister Betsy describes as vivacious. She was indeed.

Mom’s smile is gone most of the time now, but sometimes I can get her to almost let one rip when I stop in to see her every few days at the superb care facility where she lives in Romeoville. Those are good days.

Usually, she displays the appearance one might expect in a person whose memories — the collection of joys, sorrows and life experiences that weave the tapestry of a life — began relentlessly draining away several years ago. That was when Mom, my siblings and I heard the dreaded diagnosis.

Certainly she’s not alone. Right now, some 5.2 million others in the U.S. and their families are living with the merciless cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease too. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a new case rears its hideous head every 67 seconds. If you took part in Naperville’s awareness- and fundraising walk last weekend, you probably know that.

One of 638 walks taking place nationwide this fall, the event was a huge success, almost reaching its $277,000 goal as ofThursday morning, before the cash donated Sunday at the walk in Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium was added into the total (the lines are still open, by the way, in case you haven’t yet gotten around to supporting that person you know who was among the 1,427 walkers there on Sunday; just go to act.alz.org/naperville2014).

“It was an awesome walk. It was one of our best,” said Mickey Peterson, manager of special events for the regional Alzheimer’s Association, who lives in Plainfield and oversees the walks in Kankakee, Naperville and Joliet — that one’sSaturday morning, in case you’re not doing anything.

Here’s the thing: this nightmarish disease has so many nefarious tentacles. It hits caregivers, taxpayers and families with indiscriminate malice. If you’re a numbers person, consider these Association stats:

In Illinois, around 210,000 people are living with the disease.

Between now and 2025, that number is projected to increase 24 percent.

Deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s climbed 68 percent between 2000 and 2010, as the tolls exacted by other major diseases decreased.

It’s the only cause of death among the nation’s top 10 that can’t be prevented, cured or even slowed down.

The national health care bill generated by Alzheimer’s is now about $214 billion.

That figure is expected to hit $1.2 trillion by the middle of the century.

Almost 60 percent of those caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia rate the emotional stress of the task as high or very high.

More than one-third of those caregivers report symptoms of depression.

About 587,000 Illinois residents provided the equivalent of $8.3 billion in unpaid care to loved ones living with Alzheimer’s last year.

Eventually, those care providers will incur $350 million in health care costs of their own stemming directly from the physical strain and emotional toll of their toil.

Money can change that. Some truly exciting advances are being made by researchers now, the sort of discoveries that allow me to hope my kids won’t have to develop this horrible condition when they’re Mom’s age.

There’s hope there. Over the past few years, it has seemed to me that the walks’ emphasis on awareness has helped build understanding of the urgent need to raise funds. I asked Peterson if she also thought that was happening.

“I do, because we exceeded (the nationwide) goal. We did very well this year,” she said, stressing that the association is big on research. “We can’t do it without funds. We can’t do it without the donations.”

Now, I understand this isn’t the only vastly underfunded incurable medical condition. My brother’s best friend succumbed to ALS a few years ago, and it can’t be denied that it’s a vicious and horrific fate. The estimated 30,000 Americans suffering from it right now certainly didn’t deserve such an awful sentence. Funding for research toward a cure for ALS also has been unjustly scarce — at least, until people starting dumping bucketsful of ice on themselves on camera. Launched at a moment when nearly everyone is plugged into social media, this was an attention-grabbing stroke of genius. In a span of eight short weeks, the idea translated to a $115 million shot in the arm for the cause, and furnished priceless new awareness of the nasty condition.

Now let’s see if we can work similar magic for the many people impacted by Alzheimer’s.

No ice required.

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