The Expedition Obsession

By Biggar, Alison | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Expedition Obsession

Biggar, Alison, Aging Today

An Alzheimer's advocate's pursuit of summits

The climbs up Mount Vinson, Mount Aconcagua and Mount Everest are behind Alan Arnette. But despite these successes, when Aging Today spoke with Arnette, he was anxiously anticipating his climb up Alaska's Mount Denali- a mountain with a summiting success rate of 40%, and 112 deaths to its name. It's also a mountain that defeated him twice already in 2001 and 2007 because of dangerous climbing conditions and a debilitating bout of altitude sickness.

Arnette is a motivated climber, however. He has been on about 25 mountain-climbing expeditions since he was 38 (he's now 54), so he knows what it takes to will a body through it. But his motivation for this year's exploits, in which he aims to summit seven of the world's tallest mountains in 12 months, is his mother's, and her family's, journey through Alzheimer's disease. It's a journey he'd prefer that others could avoid.

Arnette's mother, Ida, died in 2009 after eight years with Alzheimer's. During that time, not only were her children and husband devastated by its emotional toll, but it took all of her and her husband's life savings to pay the $5,000 per month for her caregiving. Ironically, Arnette and his siblings were notified that she would be eligible for Medicaid two days after she died.

"Mom was the memory keeper of our family- the glue. And watching that happen to her, knowing there was no cure, and that we could just keep her comfortable and let her know she was loved, I just knew I had to do something," he says, explaining his expedition obsession.

Climbing for a Cure

So for every foot he climbs up a mountain this year, he hopes people will pledge a penny to one of his designated charitiesthe Alzheimer's Association, the Cure Alzheimer's Fund or the National Family Caregivers Alliance. On Denali, for instance, that works out to a measly $131.

Fundraising has been rather slow going so far, but even if Arnette doesn't reach his goal of $1 million, he knows (from feedback on his website, alanar that people are tuning in to his exploits, and for everyone who does, that's another person who learns about Alzheimer's and can spread the word. Arnette is well aware of current economic realities, and believes people will find a way to donate when they have their own "aha" moment.

His came when his mom looked at him while she was in the hospital visiting her sick husband, and said, "Now who are you?" From there it was a classic decline: Ida ended up in a pricey residential facility, drawing down her life savings. Luckily, Arnette was able to take early retirement from 30 years in management at Hewlett Packard to help with caregiving.

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