Congressman Denny Heck: Why I’m grateful for Alzheimer’s advocates

Editor’s Note: These remarks were made by Congressman Denny Heck at our Olympia Town hall in October. Thousands of advocates will be gathering at Advocacy Forum. Show your support by participating in the Thunderclap March 29!

Denny HEck

By Congressman Denny Heck

Today, I’m going to be thinking about three people: Dennis, Lena and Vic.

Dennis Mahar was an incredibly important voice in moving the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease forward in our community. We lost him not too long ago. To say he was a true giant in advocating for seniors is still too small of a characterization. As the director of the Area Agency on Aging for Thurston, Mason and Lewis counties and a devoted volunteer, the legacy Dennis made in our community will last for years to come. We should all give thanks that he was part of our lives and for the role he played in the state, I do.

Lena was an incredible woman whom I never met. She lived in Steilacoom, was a diabetic R.N., she helped people with diabetes and played an incredible role in her community. Then in 2008 at the age of only 55, was diagnosed with Early Onset [Alzheimer’s]. I didn’t know about her until her husband Tony wrote and told me about the story of what they were going through. He gave up his job to be her full time caregiver and in so doing joined the ranks of 15 million people who are paying the incredible price not only in their personal lives but in the economic impact on their families.  Unfortunately, Lena passed away this last March. She left a hole in the heart of Steilacoom and the Tenth Congressional District.

And there was Vic.  Vic died from a combination of the effects of Alzheimer’s and prostate cancer. His wife Jean worked really, really hard to care for him and keep him in the home. She grew up during the Depression. Her mantra to her children their entire lives was “I don’t ever want to be a burden on you.” The price she paid for it was she stepped up and did this incredible thing. It reminds me of my mother-in-law, a child of the Depression. She would actually wash out zip-lock plastic bags and reuse them; the good old Depression era ethic. That’s what Jean had in her commitment to Vic, to care for him until the very end until he passed. He passed away in his home. It was something that she always wanted.

Vic and Jean have two other names for me: Dad and Mom. What so many Washingtonians who have experienced Alzheimer’s have been through is an experience that my family has lived through first-hand. It’s why the work of advocates is so important to me and why I am grateful everyone who is a part of this conversation. It’s why I am optimistic for the future.

Dennis always used to teach me that this is like an exploding time bomb of expense for the state if we don’t get out ahead of it. If we don’t invest sufficient funds in research for a cure the expense we will bear will become incredible. He was never motivated to do this because he was a fiscal conservative; he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Caregivers, people living with dementia, professionals and concerned citizens advocate for this cause because it’s the right thing to do. I am personally grateful for this. The incredible thing about being a Member of Congress is that you actually get to speak on behalf of other people. To put a fine point on it, it’s 726,847 people. So, on behalf of the Tenth Congressional District of Washington state, thank you.

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