Opinion: Alaskan advocate shines light on Alzheimer’s crisis

In the heart of the nation’s capital next week, volunteers will champion the urgent need for legislative action to support those affected by Alzheimer’s

Sara Hondel (Courtesy photo)

Sara Hondel (Courtesy photo)

In the heart of the nation’s capital next week, volunteer advocates from across Alaska will stand alongside hundreds of fellow advocates from around the nation to champion a cause close to their hearts: the fight against Alzheimer’s and the urgent need for legislative action to support those affected by this relentless disease.

One local advocate, Sara Hondel’s, journey is not merely a symbolic gesture; it is a testament to her unwavering commitment to making a difference in the lives of those impacted by Alzheimer’s here in Alaska. For Sara, this advocacy work comes from a special place in her heart fueled by her own experiences and connections within the community.

Her dedication is clear, rooted in the memory of her husband’s beloved grandfather, Grandpa Joe, who bravely battled Alzheimer’s for a decade before passing from the disease in 2007. Sara witnessed first hand the toll this disease takes on individuals and families, including her own. This is just a part of what lit a fire within her to take action and join the fight against Alzheimer’s.

“I began advocating in 2021. Why not sooner? What took me so long after my husband lost his grandfather? A resurfaced friendship is what began my journey. My hair stylist whom I had lost contact with was advocating for the Alzheimer’s Association because she had lost her mom and four aunts from the disease. She began attending networking luncheons that I was also at, expressing her concern and desire to see a cure for Alzheimer’s. She saw me at the post office one day and asked me if I had a personal connection to Alzheimer’s. I told her yes, and she recruited me at that very instant,” Sara shares, reflecting on the pivotal moment in her advocacy journey.

Sara’s passion for the cause goes beyond her own experiences; it extends to a broader vision of a world where Alzheimer’s not only no longer affects thousands of lives across Alaska, but millions of lives around the world. As she prepares to embark on her journey to Washington, D.C., she shares excitement and determination, ready to join hundreds of fellow advocates calling for change.

“Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging — it is a devastating disease. It progresses slowly over 10-20 years before symptoms appear. The first symptom is usually having difficulty remembering new information. It is important to me to engage and educate Alaska’s elected officials on key issues regarding dementia and participate in and help plan special events that raise community awareness. The stigma around Alzheimer’s disease exists. No one is immune to the risks of dementia, and no cure or treatment can guarantee prevention. People will see someone with Alzheimer’s in one of two ways — already gone or still here. Alzheimer’s does not erase the person — it is important to me to lend my voice to all who are affected by Alzheimer’s,” says Hondel.

Central to Sara’s advocacy efforts are two critical legislative initiatives: the bipartisan BOLD Reauthorization Act and the AADAPT Act. The first seeks to bolster Alaska’s dementia infrastructure, ensuring continued support for vital programs that empower caregivers and early diagnosis.

When the BOLD Act was first presented in 2018, it was co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, unanimously approved by the Senate, and passed in the House. Since then it’s funded innovative and effective Alzheimer’s intervention programs, increased the analysis and reporting data on cognitive decline and caregiving to inform future public health actions, and provided grants, including a grant to the state of Alaska, to fund dementia prevention programs. The success of these programs shows the clear and irrefutable need to reauthorize this act before it sunsets to continue providing vital resources to Alaskans facing Alzheimer’s.

Sara knows first hand the impact of such programs, having witnessed the transformative effect they’ve had on her community. “The BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act is a lifeline for Alaska. It provides essential funding for programs that are at the forefront of our fight against Alzheimer’s. Without it, we risk losing ground in our battle against this insidious disease. That’s why it’s crucial for representatives like Peltola to step up and sponsor this vital legislation,” Sara emphasizes.

Equally pressing is the need for the AADAPT Act, which aims to streamline the diagnosis process for Alzheimer’s, particularly in rural areas where access to specialized care may be limited. This act would give primary care providers across Alaska the resources they need to be comfortable making an accurate diagnosis of dementia and help the patient determine a care plan.

Sara understands the importance of early detection and intervention, and she sees the AADAPT Act as a crucial step toward ensuring that all Alaskans have access to timely and accurate diagnosis and treatment. “The AADAPT Act is a game-changer for physicians and patients alike. By equipping primary care providers with the tools and resources they need to diagnose Alzheimer’s effectively, we can improve outcomes for countless individuals and families across Alaska. It’s a beacon of hope for those living with this disease,” says Sara.

As Sara prepares to depart for Washington, D.C., her message to her fellow Alaskans is clear: Alzheimer’s is not just a distant threat; it’s a reality that touches the lives of thousands in our state today. By standing together and advocating for change, we can make a difference in the lives of those affected by this disease and bring hope to future generations.

“8,500 people aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s in Alaska. Alaska is one of the fastest-aging states in the nation. As the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in Alaska increases, so does the need for health care workers involved in diagnosing, treating, and caring for people living with the disease, because the numbers of potential caregivers are declining,” Sara urges.

In Washington, D.C., Sara will be a voice for those who cannot speak, a champion for those who cannot fight, and a beacon of hope for a brighter future free from the shadow of Alzheimer’s. Her journey is a testament to the power of one individual to spark change, and her legacy will endure long after the echoes of her advocacy have faded.

Her story is a testament to the transformative power of advocacy and resilience. In her, and the hundreds of other advocates traveling to the nation’s capital, we find inspiration, courage, and hope. We stand with her, united in our determination to make Alzheimer’s a thing of the past.

Together, we can change the course of history and build a future without Alzheimer’s or other dementia. With our volunteer advocates leading the charge, the journey ahead is filled with promise, possibility, and the unwavering belief that, together, we can make a difference.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s Association advocacy and get involved, visit alzimpact.org/volunteer or take action now at https:p2a.co/6ebxjWq .

Amie Northagen is marketing communications manager for Alzheimer’s Association, Alaska & Washington State Chapters.

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