When you go to an Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk®, which raises money for research and care, you hear people say, “I walk for Harry” or “I walk for Hillary,” “I walk for Josh” or “I walk for Juanita.” Well, I walk for a guy named Mr. Willy.
Mr. Willy was my father: a quiet, wonderful man who owned a little grocery store in a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore. He had to leave school at a very young age, because he was from a large Polish family and everyone had to pitch in and support themselves. But he really understood the value of education, so he made sure my sisters and I had the best.
My father was committed to his community and family. He would often open the grocery store early, so local steelworkers could buy lunch before their morning shift. And Saturday nights, he would put records on and spend quality time at home, relaxing with my mother. He was so proud of all his girls.
And we were proud of him. We were so grateful for everything he gave us. He taught us important values: family, hard work, neighbor helping neighbor and heartfelt patriotism.
But as our father got older, his memory began to fail. The doctors would say, “Oh, it’s just the stress of old age” or “It’s just the depression of old age.” He was misdiagnosed and given the wrong treatment. They prescribed tranquilizers and other medications to calm him down. Nothing helped, and he continued to go downhill.
But thanks to the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Center, we finally got the real diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease. It wasn’t what we wanted to hear, but at least we knew what the problem was.
My father got sicker and sicker. He would have 36-hour periods when he couldn’t tell day from night. He used language we had never heard him use before. As the disease progressed, it was devastating for him, heartbreaking for my mom and soul-wrenching for my sisters and me.
We felt powerless, and we were powerless. Though I was a United States Senator, though I could get the highest levels of the National Institutes of Health on the phone, though I could have a Nobel Prize-winner from Johns Hopkins return my call, I could not help my father. No one knew how to slow or stop the course of this terrible disease.
My father would never have wanted a fancy tombstone to memorialize him. He would have said, “Barb, get out there and help the other guys. Get out there and work. And don’t forget your mother.” That’s why I vowed to do everything I could—not just to support research, but also to create a safety net for Alzheimer families.
I know how difficult it is for the loved ones of the as many as 5.3 million Americans who have this disease. I know the toll that caring for a sick parent or spouse can take. That’s why I have fought to increase funding for Alzheimer research, to establish a national summit on Alzheimer’s and to make permanent a 24-hour call center for expert advice about Alzheimer treatment and resources. And I vow to continue to fight to support caregivers through tax credits, education and access to affordable, quality health care.
My father taught me that each of us can make a difference. Together we can make change happen. We must keep fighting until we find a cure for Alzheimer’s.