Osakis family shares their Alzheimer’s story

If you have a brain, you should be concerned about Alzheimer’s. Because it’s a disease of the brain, it causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms can vary, but sometimes the first problem people notice is forgetfulness severe enough to affect their ability to function. Forgetting where you put something isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia, but forgetting how to get home from the grocery store could be much more concerning. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 94,000 Minnesota seniors live with the disease, and it’s estimated that by the year 2025, the number will be 120,000. Everyone probably knows somebody who has been affected by this form of dementia.

Nancy Woidyla, of Osakis, has seen a number of family members suffer with the effects of Alzheimer’s, most recently in her parents. She began to see signs of memory loss with her mother while her parents still lived in their own home. Even her mother recognized for herself that things weren’t quite right and would say, “I need to fix my brain.”

Nancy Woidyla shares a smile with her mom, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Nancy and her family are the Honorary Family at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Alexandria on Oct. 6. Contributed photo

Nancy saw the physical and mental health of both her parents worsen to the point where they needed more help. They moved to an assisted living facility, and Nancy and other family members continued to offer assistance as they were able. Nancy eventually found herself caught in the middle of the “sandwich generation,” a term referring to a generation of people who are caring for their aging parents while supporting their own children.

As a full-time nurse at a clinic in Alexandria, Nancy understood the medical needs of her parents and was happy to be able to help, but it meant time away from other responsibilities.

“I didn’t realize how it was affecting my own children,” she said. “There comes a time when you have to stop being the primary care giver and get help.”

Nancy learned the importance of involving other family members. “We were all on the same page with respect to the plans for mom and dad, and that was a good thing.”    

When confronted with a family member’s dementia, Nancy suggested getting connected early in the process. She found assistance through the services within a local health care facility and discovered a wealth of information with the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org). Local support groups, seminars and other opportunities can also be helpful.

Sometimes friends are the first to notice problems that could be signs of dementia. Nancy encourages people to be open and surround the person with love and support.

“Don’t shy away from talking about your concerns,” said Nancy. “Speak to your friend’s family, as they may not be aware of problems that could impact the safety of their loved one.”

Research

Medical research is ongoing to understand Alzheimer’s disease and to find a cure.

“Currently, there are medications that can slow the progress of the disease, but they don’t work in every case,” said Nancy. “Side effects can cause more problems than a loss of memory causes. In my mother’s case, the drug that was prescribed by the doctor caused great irritability and needed to be discontinued.”

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that a recent clinical trial shows aggressive treatment of high blood pressure results in fewer new cases of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. The findings are important because they show that there are things that can be done to reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

A teen’s passion to learn more

Anna, Nancy’s 14-year-old daughter, has become quite the expert on Alzheimer’s through a project she completed for a course at her high school in Osakis. The course is called Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), and is a national career and technical student organization that provides personal growth, leadership development, and career preparation opportunities for students in family and consumer sciences education. The organization’s mission is to promote personal growth and leadership development through family and consumer science education. Anna competed on regional and state levels with her project called “Defeat Dementia – Motivated, Informed and Involved.”

“I am proud of Anna’s work on her project,” stated Nancy. “Sometimes she was so involved in her project that she turned down invitations to do things with her friends.”

Her passionate work paid off, and she earned her way to national competition in Atlanta, Georgia, achieving a score of 99.33 out of 100 possible points.

Anna Woidlya and her grandma. Anna was always close to her grandma. When her grandma started struggling with Alzheimer’s, Anna became an advocate for Azheimer’s awareness. Contributed photo

Anna had always been close to her grandparents, especially her grandmother, and would walk down the bike path many times a week to visit her. She knew that her grandmother was experiencing memory loss and other problems. Anna remembered saying “I know that Grandma is crazy, but I love that crazy.” Anna and her grandmother laughed together, made silly faces and just enjoyed each other’s company. Anna learned that humor can be a bridge that helps people connect and feel comfortable.

It was her grandmother’s illness and eventual death that stirred Anna to learn more and eventually become an Alzheimer’s advocate. She found out about an event in Fargo to raise awareness and funding for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Anna formed a team, raised $700 in 11 days and participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, organized by the Alzheimer’s Association. That was just the beginning for Anna. Since then, she has researched, attended an Alzheimer’s conference and visited the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul to talk with representatives and senators to advocate for legislative action supporting research and care givers.

Shortages and Statistics

Nancy is concerned about the shortage of personal care attendants, nursing assistants and other care givers who work with dementia patients, and she sees it as a real health care crisis in Minnesota. Statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association show that 5.7 million Americans of all ages are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that by the year 2050, the number of people ages 65 and older with Alzheimer’s may reach 14 million. One in three American seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in this country, and the cost this year alone will be in the neighborhood $277 billion.

Both Nancy and Anna believe that through research, there is hope for finding a cause and a cure for Alzheimer’s. Until that time, they both plan to continue being advocates to raise awareness and to promote funding of research.

On Oct. 6, Nancy, Anna and the rest of the family will serve as the Honorary Family at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Alexandria. This is the first year there has been a Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Alexandria. For more information on the walk, contact Katrice Sisson at 320-257-0696 or alexandriawalk@alz.org.