For honorary chair Donna Larson and her family, this year’s walk is personal after her own diagnosis

WRITTEN BY SHEILA HELMBERGER | PHOTOS COURTESY OF Made For You Photography

KIM ROLLINS HAS SPENT A FEW YEARS VOLUNTEERING FOR THE ANNUAL WALK TO END ALZHEIMER’S IN BRAINERD. This year the event is going to get personal. Her mother, 63-year-old Donna Larson, has been diagnosed with a form of the disease and will serve as the event’s honorary chair on September 22.

Kevin Larson is Donna’s husband and Kim’s father. He says he first suggested his wife be tested for the disease a few years ago. Genetics often plays a part in memory disorders and Donna’s grandfather, mother, and brother had all previously been diagnosed. She wasn’t ready at the time, but when she started to forget things more frequently and rely on sticky notes for even everyday activities, she agreed it might be time.

In 2014 Donna began her testing at Essentia Health in Duluth. Since she has had a series of MRIs and has been seeing doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Initial screenings include a series of memory tests. In one, staff read fifteen random words and then engaged her in conversation and other distractions and asked her to remember as many as possible in the right order. Donna says for her the process was exhausting, frustrating, and emotional. Her official diagnosis is MCI – Mild Cognitive Impairment, which has the potential to lead to Alzheimer’s. Her family’s history makes that likely. Additional tests and MRIs done periodically will track the disease’s progression.

Although amazing medical advancements have been made in other areas, there are none to bring comfort or hope to the families and patients of Alzheimer’s and its related memory disorders. With Donna’s diagnosis, her doctor conceded he had nothing concrete to offer them in the way of a proven treatment plan. Trials and studies have become the family’s path for slowing development and hopefully, in the future, finding a cure.

Last spring the couple participated in a program in Florida called HABIT, Healthy Action to Benefit Independence and Thinking. It was designed to make it easier for couples to deal with memory issues while cohabitating with one another. Through counseling and other various methods, such as yoga and brain exercises, HABIT strives to give patients and their partners a better quality of life together.

Kevin and Donna know little disagreements about who did or didn’t do something or who might have misplaced an item are common in every marriage. “We don’t have those arguments anymore,” says Kevin, “Those things used to seem like a big deal but it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. When there is minimal stress in our lives and we’re together, I think we get along better now than we ever have. In some ways we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been, and we’ve been married 36 years. I’ve had to learn to loosen up a little,” he admits.

“My memories from years ago are still pretty good memories,” says Donna. She says she depends on her cell phone now to remind her of appointments and daily tasks. She describes her memory loss as being like a filing cabinet. “Some of the doors open freely but the new ones are a little sticky.”

The couple enjoys riding motorcycle together and activities at the lake with friends and family, including Kim and her husband, their son Nathan and his wife, and their four grandchildren who live in Duluth. They enjoy nights out with a handful of good friends and remain active socially.

Kim and her parents attended an Alzheimer’s conference in the Twin Cities together and Kim and her father have attended meetings with the local Alzheimer’s support group. They say it helps to have a safe place to share. The two say it’s different than telling friends and family because others in attendance understand and are going through the same experiences.

“One thing we’ve learned from meetings is that sometimes you need to laugh and it’s okay,” says Kim, “instead of being continually scared and mad.”

“Sometimes Donna will instigate the laughter,” Kevin says of his wife.

“That’s true, because sometimes silly things just happen,” says Donna. Then she adds quietly, “But, it still sucks.”

“Sometimes, l will get angry,” admits Kevin. “I’ve caught myself watching older couples in church and I think, “That’s nice. They’re growing old together. I appreciate the time I have with my wife now as we may not be so lucky down the road.” As the CEO and General Manager of CTC in Brainerd, he says his career has been built around helping people solve problems. He wishes he could do more for his wife.

Kim says she has already decided to be tested and find out if she has the gene as soon as she’s able. She’s also pleased her family will participate in this year’s walk together. “People don’t understand this disease because it isn’t talked about enough. My mom is still young. She eats the right food, she exercises every day and she does everything right. This shouldn’t be happening. The three of us, just talking openly about this, verbalizing it and accepting it, has been a big step.”

Kevin says the couple has a couple of upcoming trips planned. “Something else we’ve learned from the conference and listening to others is to just live in the moment. Enjoy this moment and don’t worry about the future or the past.”

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