By Bob Jackson
Saturday was a tad bittersweet for Tony Sugar.
It was his 65th birthday, and he smiled as he accepted hugs and birthday wishes from friends and family members. But his expression changed when he started talking about the horror of Alzheimer’s disease, which claimed his mother’s life three years ago.
“Horrible disease,” he said somberly. “Horrible.”
Sugar, a Vietnam War veteran from Boardman, was among some 800 people at Youngstown State University’s Watson and Tressel Training Site on Saturday morning to participate in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association Greater East Ohio Chapter.
The walk is the local chapter’s largest fund-raising event each year, with a goal this year of $71,000, said Helen Paes, community development director. She said the money stays in the community to help fund programs for Alzheimer’s patients, and for their families who are caregivers.
“It also helps raise public awareness about Alzheimer’s, so the walk has a dual purpose,” Paes said.
More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s, with another 15 million people serving as caregivers. It’s the only major disease in the country that has no way of being slowed, treated or cured, said Lori McCleese of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Sugar said his mother, Lucy Velchek, was 80 when family members started noticing her memory lapses. They figured it was just associated with her advancing age, but the problems gradually worsened.
“There was a long lifeline there,” Sugar said. “Her mother was 104 and her sisters were in their 90s. We figured [the memory lapses] were just part of her getting older. We never expected that it was Alzheimer’s. She even forgot how to swallow.”
Lucy, a mother of five, was 83 when she died, Sugar said, noting that the hardest part of watching his mother go through the disease was when she was no longer able to remember anyone, including her family.
“She was always such a happy person,” he said. “She was always talking to everybody, always smiling and laughing. But then she lost that.”
Sugar and others on his walk team wore T-shirts with Lucy’s picture on the front, over the heart, and a large heart on the back with the words, “We Love Lucy” inside, mimicking the logo of the popular 1960s television show, “I Love Lucy.”
Vickie Fowler of Rogers also participated in the walk Saturday, joining “Team Jean” in honor of her sister’s mother-in-law. But her own grandmother, Melva Catherine Davis, also died of Alzheimer’s.
Like Sugar, she said the worst part of watching the progression of the disease was seeing her grandmother gradually lose her memory.
“It’s hard when they stop knowing you. That’s the hardest thing,” said Fowler, 57. “Here’s someone you’ve known and hung out with all your life, and then all of a sudden you’re a stranger. You try everything to get them to know you, but the light bulb just doesn’t come on.”
Before the disease struck, Davis was an active member of the community who taught swimming at the Youngstown YMCA for years, Fowler said.
Briarfield Health Care Centers, owned by Ed and Diane Reese, was the presenting sponsor of the local event. Ed Reese said patients with memory and dementia issues are a large part of the population served by Briarfield.
“This is a good way to show our support for those with the disease, and hopefully work toward the end of it,” Reese said.
Paes said anyone who was unable to attend the walk, but would still like to contribute toward the cause, can still do so by contacting the local Alzheimer’s Association office.