MARQUETTE - When Tanya Jennings and Peggy Peterson became co-workers at Upper Peninsula Health Plan, they hit it off right away.
They found they had much in common including having dads with Alzheimer's disease and moms who are caregivers because of that. They both watched the disease take a toll on their fathers and their mothers so they decided to do something about it.
Last fall, the two organized a UPHP team for the annual Memory Walk to benefit the Alzheimer's Association. In its inagural year, the UPHP team was one of the top local fundraisers in the walk and this year, the team Peterson and Jennings started will be back to take part in the event again.
The 2009 walk is pictured. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Jennings)
"We raised a decent amount of money last year. I think it was about $2,600," Peterson said. "Last year when we decided to do this, Dennis Smith, our CEO, said he would match up to $1,000 and he did. So that really helped us a lot.
"We're hoping to be able to do that much again this year."
Peterson, who grew up in Marinette, Wis., and Jennings, who is from Negaunee, were amazed at the commonality of their experiences.
Some numbers to think about:
5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease
70 seconds... and another American is diagnosed with Alzheimer's
16 million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer's by 2050 if nothing is done
2,331 deaths in Michigan in 2006 were due to Alzheimer's
10.9 million Americans are unpaid caregivers to Alzheimer's patients
$172 billion is the annual cost of Alzheimer's disease in America
"My dad is in stage five Alzheimer's," Peterson said. "He's had it longer than Tayna's dad so I guess I kind of started mentoring her about my experiences. Our families are both going through the same kind of thing. Our mothers are both caregivers and we have been made quite aware of the disease.
"Alzheimer's isn't only the struggle of the person with the disease. It's what the family is going through," she said. "It's one of those things that's it's kind of hard to tell if someone has it or if it's just "old age."
Peterson's father, Joe Morois, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 80. Her mother, Catherine, took care of him at home for six years, but for the past two years, Joe has been in an Alzheimer's unit of a nursing home.
"When I started to work (at UPHP) three years ago, it was at a time when my Dad's case was progressing," Jennings said. "I found Peggy and I had a lot in common with our families with the whole Alzheimer's thing. We would talk to each other. Peggy's dad is ahead of mine so I look to her to learn about what's next."
Jennings's father, Bill, was facing prostate cancer six years ago and underwent two surgeries in just a few days.
"He came out of the anesthesia and we all wondered, what happened to the person we knew," she said. "Two months after that, we were told he had early onset Alzheimer's.
"I don't know why but some people are able to accept it more and talk about it more," she said. ?My Dad, six years later, is still in denial. When (Alzheimer's) was first mentioned, he decided we weren't going to talk about it and it was just shoved under the carpet. But his symptoms are becoming more evident.
"My Mom (Beverly) is a 24-7 caregiver so the impact is not just on the person with Alzheimer's but on the caregiver, too. Her biggest challenge is the struggle to keep him at home," Jennings said.
She and her mother attended an Alzheimer's Confident Caregivers Course last year.
"That was a big help to us. I am thankful that course was available," Jennings said.
But she remained concerned, not just for her parents, but for the rest of her family.
"You look around and you wonder, how do you know if it's going to affect you down the road," she said. "By people walking, we're raising money to come up with research that can tell us more about the genetics of Alzheimer's. What happens that one person in a family gets it but another doesn't?
"This walk is important because it increases awareness and brings more funds to help with research into the disease," she said.
This year, Peterson, Jennings and nine others are signed up for the UPHP team so far.
"Other people we work with have someone in their family who has been affected by Alzheimer's, too," Jennings said.
Last year, Peterson and Jennings weren't sure what to expect at their first Memory Walk.
"It was great, though," Peterson said. "They had some good speakers and a great turnout."
This year, Peterson's brother and nephew, Tom and Eric Morois, will be traveling up from Marinette to join the team.
"Because I don't live in the same town as my Dad, I can't be there," Peterson said. "My brother is there and he's the one who works with Mom on things. They deserve a lot of credit."
Jennings will again be joined by her brother, Jeff, her daughter and son-in-law, Tori and Ben Sager, and some of her grandchildren.
"Alzheimer's changes a family's life forever," Jennings said. "I think all the time about how long my Dad will be at home. He has some better days and some not-so-good days. And my Mom doesn't always think to take care of herself because she's so busy taking care of him.
"So if Memory Walk can raise funds and raise awareness, I am glad to be taking part. Every dollar counts."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.