ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT) - About 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease and, according to the Alzheimer's Association, that number is growing quickly, particularly among adults 65 and older.
Right now, 1 in 10 people in that age group are living with Alzheimer's dementia. Marion Dencklau's father is one of them.
She lives in Iowa, but visits her 94-year-old father, Everett Mellem, often at Springbrook Assisted Living in Onalaska.
She and a group from Springbrook are preparing for the Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's coming up next month, where they said there is much-needed support for families going through a difficult journey.
"For Dad, it's slowly progressing,” Dencklau said.
Dencklau said it was little things tipping her off that her father's memory was straying off course.
It began about six or seven years ago, with familiar streets, places and tasks forgotten.
Later down the road, he would forget reading a book.
"I'd say, ‘Well dad, guess what? If you lose your memory and you read the book, it will be brand-new to you again,’” Dencklau said, “and he'd laugh."
He’d also forget the acres of gardens he planted himself.
"There was no connection, none whatsoever," Dencklau said. "That was really kind of sad."
Now Mellem has a hard time remembering even those most important to him.
Father to six kids and grandfather to many more, he and his wife Jane moved into Spring Brook Assisted Living in early 2016.
"Even though pieces of that person are no longer obvious, we try really hard to honor their legacy,” said Tina Antony, Springbrook housing and community outreach specialist.
"It’s hard for mom sometimes,” Dencklau said. “Seventy-one years married to one man; that's major, and that has to be hard steps for her to go through."
"To watch them slowly fade away mentally from you, and that's what it is, it's very hard to watch,” Dencklau said.
She said Alzheimer's is a path no one chooses, but since she and her family members are along for the ride, they must meet Mellem where he is.
"Let's focus on how happy he is, even if he's going far away in his mind,” Dencklau said.
Mellem may not remember his many loved ones, but some connections run deeper than memory.
"He's still there inside. He's still our dad. We're still going to love him even though he's changed. We haven't,” Dencklau said. “Just accept it as a journey of life."
Dencklau and Springbrook employees will be participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer's on Sept. 16 at Myrick Pak in La Crosse.
Antony said day-of registration begins at 9 a.m., and the ceremony and walk starts at 10 a.m. There will also be activities such as face-painting and food vendors.
Money raised from the event supports the Alzheimer's Association, with much of it going to research, Antony said.
The walk is held nationally in more than 600 communities annually.
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