I spent years watching my mother suffer from Alzheimer’s; we need to find a cure

Claudia Sternbach (left) watched helplessly as her mother's Alzheimer's worsened.
Claudia Sternbach (left) watched helplessly as her mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

Claudia Sternbach knows the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. She spent years watching helplessly, she writes, as her mother declined and forgot key moments and people. For decades, Sternbach has helped raise awareness of the disease through the Alzheimer Association’s annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s. This year’s Santa Cruz County event is Saturday.

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Alzheimer’s disease is such a strange affliction.

Claudia Sternbach

Your person is there, but not. For days at a time they will not recognize you, and then one afternoon they might be as lucid as the caregiver who helps bathe and dress them. Your hopes take a tiny leap, then settle softly back to the ground as you witness the confusion fill your loved one’s face once again.

This was my mother in her last months.

She was trapped emotionally by the worst moments of her life. Reliving my father’s leaving her more than 60 years earlier and at the same time asking me when my sister Carol might be coming for a visit. My sister who had died two years earlier.

I never knew what I should tell her about Carol. Try to make her understand that her daughter had passed or let her believe Carol was just in the other room and would pop in later. I tended to let her think my sister would be visiting soon.

Twenty-eight years ago, local resident and businessman Jack Farr was one of the moving forces behind Santa Cruz County’s first Walk to End Alzheimer’s. He had participated in one in the San Francisco Bay Area and knew that Santa Cruz would also support the effort. He had Alzheimer’s disease in his family.

His daughter Lindsey, a good friend of mine, invited me to help out. Another dear pal, Becky Peters, who is a nurse and was one of the owners of Lifespan, a home health care agency, also leapt at the opportunity to help organize the inaugural walk.

We placed posters around town, distributed flyers, organized teams. And on a cool September morning in 1994, we held a successful walk. I don’t recall how much we made, but Jack was thrilled.

And he was not finished.

Every year, the walk grew. Every year, more teams signed up. Jack and others raised more money.

Set for Saturday, this year’s event (the ceremony begins at 9 a.m. and the walk starts at 9:30 a.m. at Seascape Park in Aptos) will mark 28 years of teams or individual walkers meeting up to raise funds to support families who are facing the difficult task of living with a loved one with this cruel disease. This year’s goal is $290,000. Organizers have already raised $135,839. But, really, it’s never enough.

Alzheimer’s is exhausting for everyone.

For the patient, for the family member and for the kind and devoted caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association provides sorely needed assistance. Fundraising events and donations make this possible.

There are an estimated 5,000 people in Santa Cruz County living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and more than 9,000 caregivers.

Money raised through the Walk to End Alzheimer’s benefits the care, support and research efforts to find a cure for this disease. It really is a win-win for everyone involved. An energizing stroll along the bluffs at Seascape, enjoying the fresh air and spectacular views and the uplifting feeling to be found in a gathering of people of all ages working toward the goal of eradicating this terrible disease.

And Jack Farr, in his 90s now, should feel a sense of pride at what he has accomplished for the Alzheimer’s community.

Jack Farr began the Walk to End Alzheimer's 28 years ago. Here, he is pictured with Becky Peters and her grandson Sam.
(via Claudia Sternbach)

My mother, before she moved into assisted living, came and stayed with me for three weeks in 2016. We were in the process of looking for a place for her to spend the final act of her life. I found out quickly how challenging it is to be the caregiver for someone you love but who simply cannot be left alone.

From tying her shoes in the morning to helping her in the bath in the evening, the days were long and often frustrating. But I loved her.

So, in addition to the frustration, was the guilt of feeling that way. This is what caregivers are confronted with every day.

Most afternoons, I helped her into my car and we would drive over to Seacliff State Beach to sit on a bench and look out at Monterey Bay. Pelicans swooping down from the sky to grab an unsuspecting fish. Gulls soaring. Once in a while, a dolphin or two popped up for our pleasure. She loved it. I would hold her hand and she would say, “Oh Claudie, it’s so beautiful.”

It was. She was. I pray I’ll always remember her.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “I’ve finally found a way to say goodbye to my sister, nine years after she died, appeared Sept. 1. For more information about the Walk to End Alzheimer’s and to register online, click here.

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