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Alzheimer’s spurs her to walk for a cure

Sitting around in a circle in the parking lot, Diana Dahill watched her grandchildren sip their juice knowing that one of them will might develop and die from Alzheimer’s.

These children are the reason why Dahill and about 1,000 others awoke at dawn and made their way out to Old Bethpage Restoration Village, sacrificing their precious Saturday mornings to walk for a cure.

The sixth leading cause of death in the United States alone, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. There are more then 35 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and about 5 million Americans who live with the disease.

The outlook for people living with Alzheimer’s is grim. There is no cure, and the current treatments can only do so much to slow the progression and improve the quality of life for those struck with the disease.

According to the 2009 World Alzheimer report, released just days after the walk, it’s projected that 115.4 million people, worldwide, will fall victim to Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia by the year 2050, an increase of 228 percent.

Moreover, every 70 seconds, the time it takes to check your e-mail or wash your hands, someone will have developed the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. While we all go about our lives approximately 400 people would have fallen victim to Alzheimer’s, representing just under half at the walk.

The village of Old Bethpage was teeming with people from all over Long Island who know all too well the struggle of caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. Karen Henley is one of these people and like many others struggles every day with the fact that her husband can’t remember her. However, what sets her apart from others is her husband’s age. “He was only 42 last month,” Henley said seated beside her teenaged daughter. “I do want to raise awareness for a cure, but we are also here to raise awareness for early onset, it’s something people sometimes forget.”

Her husband, who is now in a nursing home, developed early onset eight years ago. “I cared for him for as long as I could,” Henley said about the years she cared for her husband at home while also working full time as a teacher. “I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Stories like Henley’s were not uncommon and many others were eager to share with one another their own journeys and struggles. Jim O’Melia, searching for words to tell his own story, said he does not regret putting his father in a nursing home. His one regret, which he had no control over, was his father never felt the joy of holding his grandchildren in his arms.

O’Melia’s twin boys, who never met their grandfather, were adorned in shirts bearing the phrase ‘team jack’ gamboling away with the ducks and rabbits at the petting zoo. As he looked on at his children, his daughter at his side, even his sunglasses could not hide the fact that his eyes were tearing when he talked about his father, who died in February. With no cure in sight all O’Melia could do was stand by and watched his father fade away. “Even when they are alive they are gone,” O’Melia sighed.

Standing off to the side as the walk began Larry Peters, President of the Long Island Chapter Board of Directors of the Alzheimer’s Association, watched on with a smile. “It’s simple,” said Peters, explaining why he gives so much of his time to this cause, “one word, Pearl.”

“I was the primary caregiver for 12 years,” Peters said as he remembered his mother, clutching his medal given to the captain of each team as he spoke. “I hope we find a cure soon. I hope more people pay attention and not wait until they are touched by the disease to take action.”

As the 5 kilometer walk concluded, Dahill and her grandchildren joined the rest of their family, walking together along the muddy path for what they hope would be the last time. After losing her father, brother and grandparents to this disease Dahill, suffering from painful arthritis in her knees, hobbled across the finish line with tears in her eyes.

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