YOUNTVILLE—An orange flower means you support the cause, a yellow flower means you support or care for someone with Alzheimer’s, a purple flower means you’ve lost someone to the disease and a blue flower means you’ve been diagnosed.
This is what the nearly 600 people participating in the 5th annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s were told when they checked in at Yountville Park on Saturday morning. During the walk’s opening ceremony, participants were asked to raise their flowers one category at a time until all the flowers were raised. Then a new flower was introduced – a white flower.
The white flower represents Alzheimer’s survivors, said Shelley Donbroski, regional director of the Northern California and Northern Nevada chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Although there aren’t any yet, she said, “That first survivor is in view.”
As long as funding continues to go to research and patients keep signing up for clinical trials, she said that there should be an Alzheimer’s survivor by 2025. Money raised by Saturday’s walk and other walks across the U.S. go to the Alzheimer’s Association, which funds scientific research and provides advocacy, support groups and resources to those affected by the disease.
There are about 3,000 adults aged 65 and older who have Alzheimer’s disease in Napa County and that number is only going to increase as baby boomers age. But, she said, as great strides are made in research, there’s hope.
This year the walk was bigger than ever with at least 56 teams participating, said Mindy Wright, special events manager with the chapter. More than $106,400 had been raised by Saturday, the most raised in Napa Valley ever, but fundraising continues until Dec. 31.
“This is a unique walk because it has a real community, small town feel,” Wright said.
The walk was held along a 3-mile loop from Yountville Park to the Veterans Home with 1- and 2-mile routes for walkers who wanted to support the cause, but were unable to complete the 3-mile loop. Volunteers cheered walkers on, holding signs and handing out water bottles.
There were about 40 people on Sheri Wisgerhof’s team, “Sheri and Friends.”
Wisgerhof, 69, was diagnosed with dementia last year just after moving to Napa from San Francisco to be closer to her sister, Judy Halverson.
When she first received the news, Wisgerhof said she felt disappointed.
“It’s not my favorite thing in the world,” she said, seemingly trying to sound humorous while wearing a hat decked out in purple feathers and some matching Converse sneakers she picked up for the occasion.
The first thing she noticed, she said, was that she was having what she called “brain farts,” or lapses in her memory. Her sister noticed it too.
Halverson said that, at least at first, her sister’s diagnosis filled her with fear and questions. “Oh my gosh, what’s this mean?” she said she thought.
Wisgerhof wasn’t thrilled about giving up her city life and some of her independence, but she’s adjusting, she said.
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“I can still do things,” she said. Later this week, she said, she’s travelling with a friend to New York – a trip she’s excited for.
What has helped is knowing that she isn’t alone, she said. Wisgerhof attends meetings at Collabria Care that help “boost” her mind and lets her connect with others.
“It’s nice to be around people who are dealing with what you’re dealing with,” she said. “You don’t want to feel like you’re the only person having it.”
One of Wisgerhof’s friends and teammates, Marian Cashman, lost her father to Alzheimer’s about 27 years ago.
“It wasn’t as well known of a disease as it is now,” Cashman said. There were some support groups, but not as many drugs for it, she said.
Cashman said that she didn’t know her father had Alzheimer’s until one day he handed her a newspaper. He had been reading an article about the disease and told her that’s what he had.
“He handed it to me and said ‘I have this disease,’” she said.
Cashman remembers some of his first symptoms being memory loss, of course, and the development of a temper. Her father, she said, who was seldom upset became quick to anger and started becoming frustrated more often.
She came out to the walk on Saturday to remember her father as well as honor her friend.
A woman holding a blue flower, although she didn’t seem to remember what it meant, was walking beside Paula Vagnerini, a concierge at Aegis of Napa, an assisted living facility.
There are 14 residents living with Alzheimer’s at the facility, which has a total of 48 residents, Vagnerini said.
“They have their good days and their bad days,” she said. “Sometimes they need redirecting when they have anxiety.” Other things that help residents at Aegis living with Alzheimer’s, she said, is seeing their families and receiving a lot of affection.
“It’s a hard disease because it can go on for many years,” Vagnerini said. The hardest part for her and other caretakers at Aegis, she said, is losing residents to the disease.
“Even though you know that day will eventually come, you still miss them,” she said. “They become like your family – your grandma and grandpa.”