A family is never quite the same after an Alzheimer's diagnosis. The disease gradually destroys memory, robs sufferers of a lifetime of memories, corrupts their personalities and makes them unable to function independently. Like millions of caregivers, Alan Arnette watched his mother succumb. That experience changed his life forever. He's made it his life's mission to raise awareness about Alzheimer's disease and help fund research.
The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's
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What makes Mr. Arnette unique is how he's going about his personal campaign. He is climbing the Seven Summits, the highest mountain peak on each continent, to honor his mother and to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's disease research and awareness.
He is well on his way to achieving his ambitious goal. Arnette has already summitted Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, Aconcagua in Argentina and most recently Mt. Everest in Tibet. He is currently on his fourth climb: Denali in North America.
He is asking his supporters to donate a penny for every foot he climbs. His world journey for Alzheimer's disease involves climbing 130,000 while enduring temperatures that drop to 40 degrees below zero with 50 mph winds.
Arnette, who started mountain climbing when he was 38, retired from his job with Hewlett-Packard in his late 40s to care for his mother, Ida, who died from Alzheimer's in 2009. Since then, the 54-year-old advocate has worked tirelessly to inspire people to join his efforts. The Alzheimer's Immunotherapy Program of Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy and Pfizer Inc. are funding Mr. Arnette's climbs. All money he raises from donations will go directly to Cure Alzheimer's Fund, the Alzheimer's Association and the National Family Caregivers Association.
Mr. Arnette says "climbing Mt. Everest was easy compared to caring for my mom during her years with Alzheimer's. She was our family's memory keeper. She was one everyone depended upon. She was the glue that held the family together."
And then one day, everything changed. He and his siblings knew their mother's memory was lapsing, but like most families, they chalked it up to normal aging. "And then over breakfast, Mom dropped the most unmistakable piece of evidence thus far. She said to me, her son, ‘now who are you?'" His mom lost the rest of her memory and her identity, struggled to take care of herself and lived her final days in a nursing home before succumbing to the disease.
How Alzheimer's Caregiving is Similar to Mountain Climbing
Mr. Arnette says every step he takes climbing mountains is a step for Alzheimer's individuals and their families. "For me, there are so many similarities between mountain climbing and Alzheimer's. The mental and physical demands of scaling seemingly insurmountable peaks are not unlike the everyday trials that those living with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers face. Understanding personal limitations, reaching out for support, not giving up, taking steps day-by-day are all challenges both climbers and caregivers experience."
A Profound Moment in His Journey
Thanks to modern technology – satellite uplinks, hand-held devices and notebook computers, Mr. Arnette is able to transmit from the mountaintops. Followers can visit his blog to listen to audio recordings he makes from the peaks. One of his most profound moments, captured in audio, came when he reached the summit of Mount Everest, at sunrise on May 21, 2011. He took the final steps to the summit and saw a collection of prayer flags. At that moment, his emotional wall collapsed. He could barely get the words out: ‘I want to dedicate this summit to my mom and to all the Alzheimer's moms. We love you, and we miss you. Climb on. This is Alan. Memories are everything.' "
Advice from an Alzheimer's Caregiver
Here are Mr. Arnette's top tips for caregivers coping with the stress of Alzheimer's:
- The most important thing is to take care of yourself because you can't take care of anyone else if you're not okay yourself
- Know your limitations. It's important to know what you can't do even if you'd like to do it.
- Remember that Alzheimer's is a slow disease so you need to find a coping mechanism because it's a long journey. There are a ton of resources for family caregivers – reach out to them. Reach out to friends and family for support.
- Be an active part of the decision-making process.
Follow His Climbs
Listen to audio from Mr. Arnette's climbs, view photos and videos of the climbs at www.alanarnette.com/blog. To see what other caregivers are saying about his efforts, follow him on Facebook. Here are some of the comments on Facebook from caregivers who are following his journey:
"Thanks for climbing for my dad and all families affected by Alzheimer's"
- Becky from Montana
"You are beyond amazing - awareness is key, and people do what they can to bring awareness to others.....but what you are doing? Wow!! I am honored to "like" this."
- Kathy, Michigan
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How You Can Help
To help Mr. Arnette's cause, visit his website, www.climb4ad.com and donate.