INAUGURAL WALK TO END ALZHEIMER’S IN ISLAMORADA IS DEC. 10

Helen Williams and her mother Mary enjoy a visit at Oasis at the Keys Nursing and Rehab facility in Tavernier. Williams will be participating in the walk in honor of her mother. CONTRIBUTED

Nicky Laak’s mother Ann was first diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2015. Soon after came the devastating news: Ann had Alzheimer’s disease. Today, 81-year old Ann lives at Oasis at the Keys Nursing and Rehab in Tavernier.

“After about four years of caring for her at home, it just got to be too much,” recalled Laak. “You needed two people to care for her a lot of the time. It was 24 hours a day,” said Laak, a Key Largo resident and middle school teacher.

Helen Williams can relate to that experience. Her mother, Mary Pimental, was about 80 years old when the family started noticing changes. 

“It starts with the difficulty in remembering, the difficulty in everyday tasks,” said Williams. Williams’ mother was also diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s. 

At first, Williams, with the help of caregivers, looked after her mother at home. But in 2020, her mother fell and required more assistance. Now 86, Mary Pimental also lives at Oasis.

“It’s hard. It is difficult. You really need a lot of support,” said Williams of the decision to move her mom into the skilled nursing facility. “It comes to a point where you just know that you can’t do it yourself any more. You can’t leave them alone for one minute and you have to make a choice of what is better for them.”

It’s a difficult and heart-wrenching decision to place a loved one in a care facility. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia not only affect the person suffering from the devastating disease, but also take a tremendous emotional and physical toll on the caregivers. 

Sally Sullivan and her mother Joan spend time together during a thrift-shopping day at Oasis. 85-year-old Joan has suffered from dementia for the last five years. CONTRIBUTED

“It’s like a slow loss, really; you’re losing the person that you love,” said Laak. “I mean, they’re still that person, but they can’t really communicate with you.” 

On Sunday, Dec. 10, the Keys community will help raise money for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest fundraiser for the disease. Some 600 walks take place across the country every year. Now the Upper Keys will be added to the long list of communities taking part in this effort to stop Alzheimer’s. For the first time, a Walk to End Alzheimer’s will be held locally at Founders Park in Islamorada. 

Kara Biery is the event chair. Biery, the admissions and marketing director at Oasis, was instrumental in bringing the walk to the Upper Keys.

“I made a call to the Alzheimer’s Association informing them that Oasis at the Keys Nursing and Rehab would like to hold a small event,” explained Biery. “We quickly identified community members and business sponsors who wanted to participate. The event has evolved into the first Walk to End Alzheimer’s in the Florida Keys, with the vision that it will be held annually and continue to grow.”

Helen Williams will be walking or volunteering at the event in honor of her mother and also in support of Oasis, the only local care facility of its kind.

“I do believe in the cause. I do know that dementia/Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease for the families and I do know that Oasis is a wonderful place and does their best considering all of the resources down here in the Keys to make my mother feel like part of a family down there,” said Williams.

Laak says her mother’s caregivers at Oasis have become family.

“I spend a lot of time at the nursing home. That’s like my alternative family there,” said Laak.

Sally Sullivan’s 85-year-old mother Joan suffers from dementia and also lives at Oasis. Sullivan is grateful for her mother’s caregivers.

“They are outstanding over there. They take fantastic care of my mom,” said Sullivan.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. With an aging population, that number is expected to jump to 13 million by the year 2050.

Biery believes fundraising events like the Walk to End Alzheimer’s are making a difference.

“Funds raised go toward helping advance our understanding of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, identify possible treatments and improve support for people affected by this disease. The Walk to End Alzheimer’s brings the community together to raise awareness and advocate for progress in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease,” Biery said.

To donate or register for the inaugural Walk to End Alzheimer’s in the Florida Key visit act.alz.org/floridakeys.

Let It Ride Fishing Charters will be raffling off a chance to win a half-day fishing charter valued at $700 for those who donate to their team: act.alz.org/goto/LetItRide.

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.