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Crosslake family takes steps to end Alzheimer's disease

Donna Larson (center, foreground) sits in front of her husband Kevin while surrounded by her family, which is the honorary family for the 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer's-Brainerd Lakes Area Walk on Saturday, Sept. 22, at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. Submitted photo1 / 2
Donna Larson (center, foreground) sits in front of her husband Kevin while surrounded by her family, which is the honorary family for the 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer's-Brainerd Lakes Area Walk on Saturday, Sept. 22, at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. Submitted photo2 / 2

Donna Larson and her husband Kevin prefer to live in the moment.

The Crosslake couple stop to smell the proverbial roses more often than they used to, especially after the 63-year-old homemaker and mother of two was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"I have good days and bad days," she said of the progressive, irreversible neurological disorder.

The symptoms include gradual memory loss, impairment of judgment, disorientation, personality change, difficulty in learning and loss of language skills.

"It sucks. I don't know how else to describe it. It's just not fair," she said as she was overcome with emotion. "It's just not easy."

The Larsons are the honorary family for the 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer's-Brainerd Lakes Area Walk at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. Registration for the fundraiser starts at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, with a 3-mile and a 1-mile walk to follow.

"The reason we're doing this is to create more awareness and show that it hits anybody and everybody. No matter where you stand in the community, it can affect your family," Kevin said.

The 65-year-old retired in July as the chief executive officer and general manager of Consolidated Telecommunications Co., or CTC, but he is a Manhattan Beach mayoral candidate.

"Her mother had Alzheimer's and passed away 14 years ago, and her older brother, who's 10 years older than she is, was just put into a home in California 10 months ago with the same diagnosis," he said of his in-laws.

Donna has early-onset Alzheimer's, a rare form of dementia affecting people younger than age 65. Most with the condition develop symptoms in their 40s and 50s, and about 5 percent of all Alzheimer's patients develop symptoms before age 65, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Her mother became diagnosed at about 60 years old, so I was aware of the symptoms many years ago," Kevin said.

"I would say that I probably saw some slight changes in Donna about eight years ago, and it's such a subtle disease. There's no major turning point in short-term memory loss, so it's just little things happened over the years and then they start happening more frequently."

Those with early-onset Alzheimer's disease may face stigmas and stereotypes about the disease because of their relatively young age. Acquaintances may not believe the patients have the disease or question the diagnosis, the Mayo Clinic reported.

"The first thing when you share this information with people, they want to say, 'Well, Donna, you don't seem to have any problems, and I forget things, too,'" he said.

Kevin said he and his wife attempt to attend support groups in Brainerd and Crosby for those also afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

"There's a lot of days she's very frustrated because of the condition," he said.

Alzheimer's is the only cause of death in the top 10 in America that "cannot be prevented, cured or slowed," according to the Alzheimer's Association, and almost two-thirds of Americans with the disease are women.

"When I say living in the moment, Donna and I really appreciate having a good time doing something, whether it's boating, whether it's going for a motorcycle ride or just sitting on the dock and taking in a sunset," Kevin said. "Those things become more important."

According to the nonprofit, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease.

"Sometimes we try to laugh through things when I do stupid things or forget things. Sometimes he forgets things, too, and I get to laugh at him," Donna said.

The couple spent two weeks at the University of Florida in a program titled "Peace of Mind" to learn how to use a paper calendar-based system that aids her to keep track of things and not depend so heavily on her short-term memory.

There are an estimated 16 million caregivers of people living with Alzheimer's and other dementias in the United States, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

"There's training out there to try and create a lifestyle that's less complicated, more living in the moment," Kevin said.

The Alzheimer's Association's Walk to End Alzheimer's is the world's largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer's care, support and research and is hosted annually in more than 600 communities nationwide.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Brainerd lakes area walk raised $103,117 of the $110,000 goal, and the fundraiser included 441 participants and 63 teams, according to its webpage.

"If we can do anything for awareness, if we can do anything for helping raise funds for research and, of course, we hope that we're doing something for somebody else," Kevin said.

For more information about Alzheimer's disease, visit www.alz.org.

If you go

• What: 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer's fundraiser.

• When: Registration at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, ceremony at 10 a.m., walk to follow.

• Where: Forestview Middle School, 12149 Knollwood Drive, Baxter.

• More info: Contact Brenda Conley at 218-733-2560 or bconley@alz.org.

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