- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Paula Abraham was talking with her marketing students at Washington High School one recent day, the students updating her on a campaign they’ve been devising.

Abraham asked about the progress on a promotional video. “I showed you some of those videos that had been posted on, um,” she said, hesitating a long moment. Then it comes to her. “Facebook.”

Many of Abraham’s students have taken classes from her throughout their high school careers. Last fall they began to notice their teacher was more forgetful, often reassigning the same work. Once, said senior Jessica Peregrine, Abraham asked the class to remind her of the area code we’re in.

Her husband and children, too, were becoming annoyed. “It was getting to the point where we were saying, ‘Mom, seriously, we just told you that,’ ” daughter Alicia Alkire said.

Abraham herself began to notice that she’d find her toothbrush in a strange spot in the house, or the spatula in the pants drawer. She was finding it more difficult to learn and remember new administrative tasks at work.

But the last straw fell the day she completely forgot how to make the Chex mix recipe, the one she’d concocted from the same six ingredients, in the same bowl, two or three times a week for years.

“I just stood there and couldn’t remember what to get,” Abraham recalled, “and I started to cry.”

The 61-year-old has watched her own mother, 88-year-old Pauline Abraham, decline from Alzheimer’s for the last 10 years, four in an institution after her father could no longer care for her at home. That her mother was in trouble years earlier had hit home for Paula when the older woman forgot her daughter’s birthday. And, in hindsight, Paula’s grandmother had suffered from what was then referred to as senility.

So in October, scared but wanting answers, Paula Abraham underwent memory testing and scans. In December, she received a confirmed diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is diagnosed in people younger than 65, about 5 percent of the 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s. Many of them are in their 40s and 50s.

Paula Abraham, the woman who had become a leading advocate for local Alzheimer’s services after watching her own mother become an unaware shell of her former self, found herself by turns devastated and determined to act.

After her father’s death in 2012, Paula Abraham became her mother’s chief advocate. Others in the family have found it increasingly difficult to visit Pauline, who doesn’t speak anymore and doesn’t recognize the family.

Paula has noticed that others in the assisted living facility where her mother has lived nearly four years don’t see many visitors, either.

“She’s in no pain, she doesn’t cook anymore, clean anymore, she laughs, she’s healthy, she eats whatever she wants,” Paula said of her early attempts at keeping a sense of humor about her mother’s condition. “Then later, as it got worse, I said, ‘No, I’d rather get cancer, because I don’t want my children to go through this.’”

Abraham joined the board of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Northern Indiana a few years ago, becoming an advocate and chief fundraiser for the annual walk. This year, five teams are walking to support Paula, under different names: friends and relatives; high school classmates; students; former colleagues at Clay High School; and her Jazzercize group.

“When I started years ago, it was to support my mother, and now it’s me,” Abraham said. “And sometimes I think, ‘Now when I walk next year, will I remember them?’ A lot of times, it’s surreal, and a lot of times, I cry.”

Pam Huffer, executive director of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Northern Indiana, said the need for what the group does is expected to rise over the next 10 years, as dementia cases rise a projected 18 percent. She calls Abraham inspirational.

“Her story has more power than other stories,” Huffer said, because of her mother’s experience and, now, her own journey. “She is fearlessly able to talk with the people she knows and tell them how important this is.”

Paula is wrapping up her 38-year teaching career and credits her principal and others at Washington for being supportive. Her small marketing class has been enthusiastic about using the walk as a project, devising fundraisers such as wristbands and buttons and publicizing the walk through fliers, social media and speaking at functions.

Saveon McElroy, a junior in the marketing class, has taken classes with Abraham since his freshman year. When she told the class about her diagnosis, the lapses he and others had noticed made sense.

The 17-year-old said the teacher who has inspired him to major in business when he goes to college has also inspired him to want to stick with the cause, #TeamAbraham, as long as she is able to be the face of the movement.

Howard Davidson, a senior, said her story has also taught the students about Alzheimer’s. “I really didn’t think of Alzheimer’s as affecting anybody I know,” he said. “Then it was like, ‘This is real.’ “

About two weeks ago, Paula Abraham became a grandmother when 31-year-old Alicia Alkire gave birth to Eliana a few weeks earlier than expected.

Alkire said that when her mother told her about the Alzheimer’s diagnosis the younger woman was at the same time struggling with serious pregnancy complications and in and out of the hospital. So she hasn’t had much time to reflect on that, or the fact her mother tested positive for having a gene linked to about 15 percent of Alzheimer’s cases.

She’s trying to take things as they come, taking photos and videos of her mother with her daughter and spending as much time with her as she can.

“The hardest part is we’ve seen it progress with my grandmother,” Alkire said. “I’m trying not to think the worst.”

Paula’s husband, Jim Von Bergen, recalls when the stresses of Paula’s forgetfulness drove her to seek answers. They were hoping perhaps a brain tumor was behind it - because a tumor can be treated.

Von Bergen, 57, and Abraham have been married 10 years, now reeling from the playing out of the “worse” part of their “better or worse” marriage vows.

He has restructured his business to work fewer hours and spend more time at home, he said. They won’t be able to buy the home in Florida they’d hoped for, and once she retires, he loses his health care coverage through her job.

“We have some things on the bucket list we want to get done,” he said. “It’s gonna be tough times. (But) she’s got a lot of family and friends who will help her through it.”

Some days, Abraham said, you wouldn’t suspect her diagnosis. But on others, especially with stress, her memory lapses are more pronounced.

Alzheimer’s has been linked to some factors that include lack of brain stimulation, physical exercise, diet and socialization. “You know what? My mother played bridge, she worked until she was 70, she golfed,” Abraham said. “She was in perfect health.”

Abraham took her first dose as part of a national Phase II study through Elkhart Clinic last week, the NOBLE study, which has shown promise in keeping brain cells alive longer.

She doesn’t know whether she is receiving the real thing or a placebo, but based on side effects, Abraham thinks it might be the real thing.

The self-described “planner” has already made arrangements for her brain and her mother’s to be donated to Indiana University’s medical school for neurology study.

Because there’s no cure or even a drug that has proven effective in slowing the progression of the devastating condition, Abraham figures she needs to be part of furthering science.

Unlike dying of some other diseases, she notes that with Alzheimer’s, “You can’t lie on your deathbed and tell your grandchildren stories. You can’t hold their hand and say, ‘I love you.’”

She might be angry and sad at what awaits her, but the new grandmother also is determined to fight against Alzheimer’s the way breast cancer victims made a difference in how that disease is treated.

“I don’t want to think that my children have to go through this. I don’t want anybody’s children to think they may get this disease.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1eYGLmj

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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