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Alzheimer's disease - A growing reality in Bulloch County
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More than 300 residents gathered at Bulloch Academy to raise awareness and money for Alzheimer's research last month. The Memory Walk is an annual local event. - photo by Special

For more info on Alzheimer's:

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, you are not alone. The Alzheimer's Association is an excellent resource for reliable information, education, referral and support. Log on to or call the 24/7 helpline at 800.272.3900.


      Some have called it a fate worse than death. It's an incurable disease. One that is equally devastating on the victim and the victim's loved ones who witness an unfolding tragedy, often in slow motion.
      The reality of Alzheimer's disease is touching more and more lives in communities everywhere. With a constant that says it all, "it will break your heart."
      For a longtime Bulloch family, the hurt continues and the healing is not yet in sight.
      "My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 62. She digressed very fast, much faster than we had anticipated," recalled Sally Hodges McKinney, the daughter of Sue Hodges, who passed away at age 65 in December 2009 after a two year, three month battle with the disease.
      "She forgot how to match clothes and put on her makeup," McKinney said. "She was forced to give up her bridge clubs with lifelong friends. She could not use a cell phone. She couldn't read a recipe. She could no longer cook, watch TV or read the Statesboro Herald."
      More than half of all Americans know someone like Hodges who has suffered from Alzheimer's, a fatal brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. For nearly 30 percent of Americans, that person is a family member.
      In the Bulloch County community, the debilitating disease has hit home with a growing number of families like the Hodges.
      In an effort to raise awareness and funding for Alzheimer care, support and research, more than 300 local residents participated in Statesboro Memory Walk 2010 last month at Bulloch Academy. People of all ages, from a 2-year old girl to a gentleman pushing 90, participated in the annual event, which raised nearly $60,000. The total was one-third higher than the local chapter's fundraising goal even in the midst of difficult economic times.
      "I could not be more pleased with the participation and generosity of people here in Bulloch County," said Darron Burnette, who served as chairman of the event that is now in its fourth year locally. "Not only did we raise a lot of money but we raised a lot of awareness. To me, that is just as important."
      Burnette's own experience with the disease began four years ago when his mother's odd behavior led to diagnosis of Alzheimer's at the age of 74. On visits to his parents' home in Atlanta since, he saw firsthand her accelerated confusion and disorientation as the disease progressed.
      With Alzheimer's, memory loss is usually mild in the early stages but in its latter stages, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation or respond to their environment. People afflicted by the disease live an average of eight years after symptoms become noticeable, however, survival can range from three to 20 years, depending on age and related health conditions.
      "Mr. Charlie Olliff's wife had Alzheimer's for many years," said Burnette. "In helping me cope with my mother's illness, he said 'just remember, she is not suffering physically. She may not know you but she is not in physical pain.' That has certainly helped me deal with the situation."
      Nevertheless, Burnette says it's hard to describe the feeling he gets as he stares into his mother's hollow eyes. "It's difficult. Really difficult."
      He added, "My heart breaks to know that I cannot share fond memories with my mother. She has been unable to spend special times with my children. We must work together to increase funds for Alzheimer's research."
      Nearly two-thirds of the 5.3 million people who have Alzheimer's are women and it is now the seventh leading cause of death. The greatest known risk factor is increasing age with the majority of people diagnosed with the disease age 65 and older. Up to 5 percent of people with Alzheimer's have "younger-onset" which often appears when someone is in their 40s or 50s.
       The digression with Alzheimer's is a living misery for families.
      McKinney recalled when her mother could no longer follow a church sermon. Her family pastor, Jimmy Cason of Statesboro First United Methodist Church, would make in-home visits on a regular basis.
       "My mother was becoming more and more emotional because she knew that she was dying," said McKinney who joined her father, Jimmy Hodges, as an honorary co-chair for this year's Memory Walk. "One day, she cried out to our pastor that she could no longer read or understand her Bible. In his sweet, gentle voice, Pastor Jimmy said, 'Don't worry Sue. Just hold The Bible close to you. God understands and He has a great plan for you.'
       "That was a sad moment. One of many."
       Deteriorating conditions weigh on a family and those caregivers who are so emotionally attached.
      "My mother is physically here but her mind has passed away," said Burnette. "I cannot begin to describe the emotional impact it has made on our family. Both of my sisters deal with the anguish on a daily basis. I hope the work of volunteers like myself will make a difference so we can prevent our friends and other families from going through a nightmare like this."
       "This is a very painful experience but I am encouraged by recent advances in research," Burnette said.
      The Alzheimer's Association has invested more than $265 million in research. Experts say research for Alzheimer's is promising even as the disease's looming impacts grows on our society. This includes tests and scans that may lead to early detection, plus the identification of genetic and biological markers that could indicate if someone is at increased risk for the disease.
      "The Memory Walk Committee in Bulloch County did an outstanding job. The money raised from the event will help provide programs and support to individuals and families facing Alzheimer's," commented Jami Murray, development director of the Coastal Georgia Region of the Alzheimer's Association. "This money also goes for research to find more effective treatments and eventually a cure. We sincerely appreciate the generosity and support we received from Bulloch County."
      Besides the supporters and volunteers who made the Statesboro Memory Walk so successful, McKinney added the other heroes are the families and professional caregivers who are the life support for Alzheimer's victims.
      "My daddy was a hero. Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers live a '36-hour day.' He was there for her throughout the day and night working to help her keep her dignity until the end."

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