CHAUTAUQUA - For most of the hundreds of Southern Tier residents who Walk to End Alzheimer's at the Chautauqua Institution every fall, the reason they walk is personal - they have been affected in some way by Alzheimer's Disease.
Across Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties, it is estimated there are more than 7,500 people who have the disease, with another 22,000 providing some kind of care for them.
Among those caregivers is the family of the late Nancy (Littlejohns) George of Olean, who had the disease.
Nanette Higgins, one of Nancy's four daughters, said her mother "would be delighted to see so many people walking to end this disease because it is so isolating It's good to see people come together and support each other."
The walk, sponsored each year by the Alzheimer's Association Western New York Chapter, helps sustain the chapter's outreach, including care consultations and education, as well as funding research aimed at ending the disease. Once again, the Chautauqua Institution will host the walk, which is slated for Saturday. Five other communities in Western New York will host their own walks over the next month, including Batavia, Buffalo, Lewiston, Medina and Warsaw.
Nancy's family has been walking for about 10 years as a team called "Nancy's Girls."
"That's what she called us her girls," granddaughter Elizabeth Galeazzo of Nancy's four daughters and seven granddaughters said.
Nancy was also a bit of a prankster, according to her family.
"She liked nothing better than to hide and jump out and scare us, especially after we watched a scary movie!" daughter Ann McIntyre remembered.
That slowly changed as the disease progressed.
"It was so hard to watch our mother become a stranger to us," Nanette said.
Nancy had Alzheimer's many years, with the disease progressing as other illnesses impacted her health.
"She lost a part of herself with every illness," Nanette said.
These three women are joined on the walk each year by another dozen family members.
"We hope the walks accomplish more awareness for this disease that can affect anybody. And we hope to raise money for continued research for someday finding a cure. Also, we act as a huge support group for each other because we share this common bond," Elizabeth said.
The annual event is open to everyone and includes a touching Promise Garden ceremony. Every registered walker receives a vinyl flower pinwheel that can be personalized with a message or name. The flowers come in four colors with each color representing a reason to walk, such as having lost someone to Alzheimer's or providing some kind of support. The flowers are "planted" before the walk and then retrieved as a take-home/remembrance souvenir of their loved one and the event.
Registration can be completed on the day of the walk at 9 a.m. or online by visiting the Alzheimer's Association Western New York Chapter's website at www.alz.org/wny. Ceremonies and walk day activities begin at 10 a.m. at the Turner Community Center on the grounds of the Institution. The walk will last anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes and walkers will have the option of taking the entire two mile route or half of it.
More information is available by calling the Alzheimer's Association's national offices at 1-800-272-3900 or by calling the Western New York Chapter headquarters at 626-0600.
The Walk to End Alzheimer's is made possible through the support of these companies: ElderWood Senior Care, West Herr, Columbus McKinnon and Tim Hortons, with media support provided by The Jamestown Gazette, Media One Group and WKBW-TV.