A family is never quite the same after an Alzheimer's diagnosis. The disease gradually destroys memory, 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 has made it his life's mission to raise awareness about Alzheimer's disease (AD) and help fund research.
What makes Arnette unique is how he went about this personal campaign. In just under one year, 55-year-old Alan Arnette accomplished what few have done before. He climbed the 7 Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents to raise awareness of AD. He asked supporters to donate one penny for every foot he completed on his 130,000-foot journey.
Arnette, a professional speaker, mountaineer and advocate, cared for his mother, Ida, who had AD. This experience transformed him into a champion for the fight against the nation's 6th most deadly disease.
"Climbing Mt. Everest was easy compared to caring for my mom during her years with dementia," Arnette says. "She was our family's memory keeper. She was one everyone depended upon. She was the glue that held the family together."
Arnette remembers the day that 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," Arnette recalls. "She said to me, her son, ‘now who are you?'"
He took early retirement in 2007 at age 51 from Hewlett-Packard to care for his mother and became a well-known advocate and spokesperson for AD research, caregiver support, education and awareness. 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 in 2009.
To draw attention to the growing prevalence of the disease in our aging population and the enormous financial and personal burden it places on patients, their caregivers and society, Arnette embarked on The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's: Memories are Everything campaign in 2011.
Alan began climbing at age 38 and has scaled some of the world’s highest peaks. He has now completed over 35 major expeditions, including summiting Mt. Everest in 2011 and Manaslu in 2013, plus all 53 of the Colorado 14ers, peaks in the state that are between 14,000 and 15,000 feet tall. During the 7 Summits, he climbed the equivalent of more than 100 times the height of the Empire State Building in a variety of weather conditions, including temperatures 40 degrees below zero and winds as high as 70 mph.
On his final climb to the top of Kosciuszko in Australia, Arnette says, "As I walked up the snow, my thoughts went to the past 11 months and all my climbs. I also thought about my purpose. I called my wife, Cathy, for the eighth time from a remote mountain and we shared in the feeling of accomplishment and commitment to this goal."
Arnette says every step he takes climbing mountains is a step for individuals and their families. "For me, there are so many similarities. The mental and physical demands of scaling seemingly insurmountable peaks are not unlike the everyday trials that those living with AD 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."
"I hope to share my experiences of climbing and AD as much as possible and continue sending our message of hope, need and urgency. This disease is not going away. Over 435,000 people in the US alone were diagnosed in the 11 months of this climbing campaign. So this is a milestone, not the start or the end."
In all, Arnette raised $250,000 for the Cure Alzheimer's Fund, The National Family Caregivers Association and the Alzheimer's Association, and spread his message to over 50 million people through this campaign. He also offers these top tips to caregivers coping with the stress of AD:
- The most important thing is to care for yourself, too, 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. Seek them out. Reach out to friends and family for support.
- Be an active part of the decision-making process.
To learn more or participate in Arnette's continued efforts, visit his website at www.alanarnette.com.