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Those fighting Alzheimer's show their dedication

Maurice "Boomer" McGrath's daughters and ex-wife visit him at Deer Crest where he resides in the Garden View Memory Care unit. McGrath was diagnosed with dementia about four years ago and moved into the senior housing development just this year. From left are Cheryl Key, Boomer, Shirley McGrath and Cindy McGrath.

Red Wing has held a "Walk to End Alzheimer's" for more than 15 years straight, but the event that usually brings out large crowds saw a bleak year in the past when winter arrived earlier than expected.

Red Wing Alzheimer's Committee co-chair Lona Bignell -- whose mom suffered from Alzheimer's -- remembered the venue for the walk looking especially empty because the cold and snow had struck.

Then, just as the walk officially started, she found herself in awe of the flood of people getting out of their warm cars and braving the inconvenient weather to join the event.

"I looked up and said, 'Well mom, this is for you,'" Bignell said, noting the dedication of everyone who walks to fight Alzheimer's.

Though not every year brings with it unfortunate conditions, the walk has seen its fair share of types of bad weather -- and continued through them all.

"We're brave, rain or snow," said Karla Snider, special events coordinator for the Southern Minnesota Alzheimer's Association.

"One year we'd have shorts on, the next year we'd get covered in snow," Bignell added.

Still, they're out there each autumn strolling through A.P. Anderson Park to raise money that helps fund support programs, advocacy and research of Alzheimer's.

"It's probably one of the worst diseases because people actually lose their personalities, who they are," Deer Crest activity director Jackie Brenne said.

The disease varies from person to person, deteriorating everyone's memory at a different speed. Whether that happens quickly or slowly, however, watching a loved one mentally slip away isn't easy. Bignell remembers having to witness the effects of Alzheimer's during the last decade of her mom's life.

"She died when she was 90, but I lost her five to 10 years before that," she said.

Reaching a wider audience

What used to be as simple as a walk in the park is being expanded this year to include games and activities all throughout the event, which starts at 9 a.m. Saturday.

That morning, not only will attendees walk the 1 ½-mile route through the park, they'll also have the opportunity to get a massage, enjoy refreshments, sign up for silent auction items and listen to music. Children will stay entertained as they start up a game of bean bag toss or blow bubbles.

"It's family-oriented -- being more of a celebration of 'we're in this together, you're not alone,'" Snider explained.

Recognizing the McGraths

The walk will be led by the family of 81-year-old Maurice "Boomer" McGrath, who resides at Deer Crest Senior Housing in the Garden View Memory Care and has suffered from memory problems for about four years.

"He first was diagnosed with dementia, and then you think, 'OK, they're just going to lose their memory.' But in the last couple of weeks he really has failed physically," McGrath's daughter Cindy said.

For those four years those closest to McGrath, including his children Cindy McGrath, Tom McGrath and Cheryl Key, as well as ex-wife Shirley McGrath, have had to see him slowly slipping away from them.

"I'm losing my father and I'm losing my best friend, because he's both," Cindy said. "It's so important to find a cure because I know there's a lot of people out there that are in the same position as we are -- watching your parents deteriorate."

Trying to avoid Alzheimer's

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, Snider said there are a few things aging adults can do to keep their brains sharp and help avoid future memory problems.

She recommends crossword puzzles and other mind games, as well as simply doing things differently than normal. For example, rather than driving the same way to and from work each day, try an alternate route.

"If you're used to the same routine every morning, mix it up," Snider said.

If you go...

What: Walk to End Alzheimer's

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where/: A.P. Anderson Park