MARQUETTE - Amy Mattson wasn't expecting the tears.
Along with Shelby Bischoff, Mattson attended the Alzheimer's Forum in Washington, D.C., last month to represent the Upper Peninsula as part of the Greater Michigan Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association delegation.
"I'm not an emotional person. I'm not a crier," Mattson said. "But I wished I had a box of Kleenex with me. The stories. I wasn't expecting some of the stories. It was pretty amazing."
While in Washington, D.C., last month, local residents Shelby Bischoff, center, and Amy Mattson, right, posed with Nikki Dodson of lower Michigan. The three attended a forum on Alzheimer’s disease along with some 700 others from across the nation. The participants learned more about the disease, which is striking those in 30s and 40s, not just senior citizens. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Bischoff)
Mattson, the local director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, said gathering with people from all around the country was incredible.
"It was amazing," she said. "I don't know if I have the words. It was such a powerful experience, to be sitting in a room where all the participants have been touched by Alzheimer's. Some even have Alzheimer's. It was something else."
Bischoff, who works for mBank and volunteers for the Alzheimer's Association, said the three-day forum had many highlights, one of which came from a young woman.
"The forum was extremely emotional and the stories were real and quite honestly heartbreaking," Bischoff said. "One young woman's husband who's 31 was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This young woman is a nurse and the mother of three. She had to quit her job to care for her husband.
"Many folks are currently caring for or have had family members in their 40s, 50s and 60s with Alzheimer's. The message is clear that this is not an old person's disease and many of these people are falling through the current health care system.
"This disease affects the entire family, every person."
While in Washington, Bischoff and Mattson met with Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Ann Arbor.
"Senator Stabenow has been of tremendous support to the Alzheimer's Association," Bischoff said. "She was very warm and her staff received us with great respect and welcomed the group to Sen. Stabenow's office for our first visit of the day to Capitol Hill."
Bischoff, Mattson and others in the group were seeking the senator's support for a number of pieces of legislation to help in the fight against Alzheimer's. They also spoke with staff of other Michigan legislators like Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls.
Another important event was the Candlelight Tribute Rally, Bischoff said.
"It was amazing to see more than 700 people with candles held in the air to support advocacy to kick off our forum," she said. "Many of the attendees have lost someone with Alzheimer's or actually have Alzheimer's disease."
Newt Gingrich, who is now running for president, was the keynote speaker.
"He announced his continued support for Alzheimer's research and brain science," Bischoff said. "There was also representation from the Obama administration."
Obama signed into law the National Alzheimer's Project Act in January, which will create a national strategic plan to address the rapidly escalating crisis of Alzheimer's disease, Bischoff said.
"Part of the forum was to start implementation of this act," she said. "Many advocates spoke about what they want to see as a priority for NAPA and the implementation for this bill going forward."
The U.P. women also advocated for two other priorities while in Washington, Bischoff said. One is the Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act, which asks for a portion of the $31 billion allocated to the National Institutes of Health to be used for Alzheimer's research.
The other is HOPE for Alzheimer's, with HOPE standing for Health Outcomes Planning Education Act.
"This act would help the families deal with Alzheimer's through detection and documentation," Bischoff said. "And it would provide resources and support services for those diagnosed with the disease and for their caregivers."
Bischoff said she and Mattson both would continue to advocate for Alzheimer's support. She suggested others who would like to get involved participate in September's Walk to End Alzheimer's locally.
For more information on that event and Alzheimer's disease in general, visit www.alz.org/gmc.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.