A drizzle may have shortened a scheduled mile-and-a-half trek through the streets of Soldotna Thursday, but participants in the Longest Day Walk ’n’ Roll event didn’t let the weather rain on their parade.
Decked out in purple shirts and hats, a group of about 50 people set off from the Heritage Place residential facility and enthusiastically walked several blocks as part of a worldwide Longest Day campaign sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association.
The campaign encourages organizations and individuals to sponsor or attend local events that help raise awareness about the degenerative brain disease, which affects an estimated 5.7 million people nationwide and 6,800 Alaskans.
Residents of the 60-bed long-term care facility first participated in the walk last year, when about 130 people trekked a mile-and-half loop through Soldotna.
Previously, staff at the residence had participated in a bicycle ride as part of the Longest Day event.
“We realized a year ago that our residents aren’t going to hop on a bicycle and go,” Aud Walaszek, Heritage Place activities coordinator, said. “This is is really about the residents, and we need to do something the residents can do.”
The event was a hit — so much that a group of Heritage Place residents decided to get off the sidewalk and walk in the Soldotna Progress Days parade last July, Walaszek said.
“It was such a success for residents to participate and be part of the celebration that we are doing it again this year,” Resident President Mary Nell Larson said.
For Larson, the walk is not only a way to raise awareness about a disease that affects some of her friends, but an opportunity to connect with the greater community.
“We may have Alzheimer’s or memory loss, that doesn’t take us away from being a part of the city,” Larson said. “This is our city too, and we want everybody to know that we’re here.”
The walk was just one part of the resident’s “Longest Day” participation.
Heritage Place hosted a silent auction of items donated by the community, staff and residents. Residents worked together to created objects for the auction, such as felted soap, homemade jam, bowl cozies and sitting stools made out of tires, Resident council treasurer Reeni Reichel said.
Their efforts netted $2,307, which will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The walk and fundraising efforts align with the Heritage Place “dignity mission,” which strives to place a value on individuals, regardless of their stage of life or health, Walaszek said.
“Because personality can change based on circumstances, we can’t place a human value on that,” Walaszek said. “We have to base value on personhood, which is constant.”
“So even if someone has dementia — or whatever their illness is or their struggle — we recognize their dignity,” she said.
Awareness about the nature of Alzheimer’s is becoming particularly important as the population ages and more and more people are diagnosed with the disease, Ruthann Truesdell, Heritage Place staff training coordinator, said.
“Because of medical technology, we’re living longer, and our population is older,” she said. “So if we do not find out how to slow down this disease, it’s going to go basically overtake our nation’s budget.”
Alzheimer’s was the ninth-leading cause of death among Alaskans in 2016, affecting 6,800 people. In 2018, the disease will cost the nation $277 billion in 2018, and costs could rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050, according to estimates by the Alzheimer’s Association.
Pensinsula Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl contributed to the story.
Reach Erin Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org