PENDLETON- When Sharron Wart's husband, Mike, began forgetting things and became easily frustrated, she thought of two possible diagnoses: a brain tumor or Alzheimer's disease. Because of everything Sharron had heard about the difficulty of Alzheimer's, she hoped it was a brain tumor. Besides, Mike was only 54. He couldn't have Alzheimer's.

But Mike did, and the disease led to the pneumonia that claimed his life at 57 years old last March. Whereas many Alzheimer's patients have the disease for more than 10 years, Mike's body degenerated and was laid to rest after just three years and four months.

"I just thought we had more time," Sharron said. "But I'm thankful it didn't go on that long."

Sharron now is turning her attention to helping in the search for a cure. She'll participate Sunday in the 13th annual La Grande Memory Walk where people will walk, run and ride their bikes, while raising money for the Alzheimer's Association.

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that results in the loss of brain cells. It causes a gradual and progressive loss of memory, thinking and reasoning skills. As Alzheimer's progresses, individuals may also experience changes in personality and behavior. In late stages of the disease, patients need help with dressing, personal hygiene, eating and other basic functions.

Prognosis for Alzheimer's patients is an average of about eight years after first experiencing symptoms, but the duration of the disease can vary from three to 20 years.

There is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's, just medications that can help make life a little more comfortable for the patient. More than 4.5 million Americans suffer from the disease.

Sharron and her family watched their husband, their father, their friend go from a successful and talented mechanic, avid hunter and volunteer with Umatilla County Search and Rescue to an often frustrated, forgetful and overall different person.

"He changed quite a bit," said Sharron and Mike's son, Ron. "He wasn't even the same person anymore."

Ron said some of his father's younger grandchildren began to be afraid of him because they didn't quite understand the changes their grandfather was going through. Even Mike's beloved dogs sensed the changes and even began running away from Mike when he came toward them.

Mike's friends noticed the rapid changes, too. Lt. Glen Diehl of the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office was one of Mike's best friends and rode on the snowmobile patrol at Tollgate during the winters and with search and rescue.

"Mike was one of those guys who'd give you the shirt off his back," Diehl said. "He had a huge heart. But when he started losing his memory, he got frustrated. Once he was diagnosed, the light came on for everybody else, but Mike didn't want to hear it."

Sharron said she had to use tough love to help her husband, especially at the beginning when he was first diagnosed. Once he was first diagnosed, the insurance companies urged Mike to retire from his shop, Mike's Auto Repair in Pendleton, for safety reasons.

"He'd forget how to do something he'd been doing for years, things that were normally so simple for him," said Ron, who worked with his father at the auto shop. "He'd just seem lost."

Sharron said Mike would try to "cover it up."

"That's part of the make-up of an Alzheimer's patient," Sharron said. "Sometimes, he'd just look out the window and seem off in his own world."

Alzheimer's patients often seem like children all over again, recessing back to childhood. They forget things, need constant care and a watchful eye.

Sharron said she wasn't able to find a local support group for people with younger family members who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Instead, she referred to a book, "The 36-Hour Day," a book she called "a bible." The book offered solutions.

Sharron said Mike pointed the finger of blame at her when he was forced to retire early from the auto shop. But she tried not to take it personally, even when he began forgetting who she was in the later stages of the disease.

"I had to put myself in his place," Sharron said. "You have to stop and think about how if these strange people came up to you and say, 'Hi Dad,' and 'Hi honey,' and give you a kiss, how strange that would be. It's like these unfamiliar people invading your space."

"It was really tough to deal with," Ron added.

Sharron and her family couldn't deal with it, not on their own. They put Mike in a health facility where doctors and nurses could care for him the way their family couldn't. Mike began at Americare in Pendleton, but the Wart's soon realized he needed to be in a locked-down facility.

"He jumped the fence and escaped, twice," Ron said. "He went down to Denny's and got in a couple's car."

A physician suggested Sharron look into placing Mike at Evergreen Vista Health Center in La Grande, but, "I just couldn't bring myself to be that far away," she said. So she instead took him to another Evergreen Vista facility in Milton-Freewater.

"Most of the people there were wonderful, but they just couldn't handle him," Sharron said.

So Mike went to Evergreen Vista in La Grande, and Sharron soon realized she should have taken her husband there to begin with.

"Those people are the most caring, loving people I've ever met," Sharron said of Evergreen's staff. "They became like our extended family, and still are."

Mike stayed at Evergreen in La Grande until the day he died, March 23. At his funeral, two carloads of Evergreen staff came to the services to pay their respects and say good-bye to the friend they had made.

"They went above and beyond the call of duty," Sharron said.

The Wart family and their friends now hope to shed light on the effects of Alzheimer's Disease, and how it doesn't just affect the elderly.

"A younger person with Alzheimer's is completely different from an older person with Alzheimer's," Sharron said. "They're beginning to diagnose people in their 30s and that's why we've got to find a cure."

"Unfortunately, at a time when the sun should have been shining brightly for Mike, it was instead kind of dismal," Diehl said. "That was so tough to see."

Alzheimer's: 10 warning signs

1. Memory loss

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

3. Problems with language, finding the right word

4. Disorientation to time and place

5. Poor or decreased judgment

6. Problems with abstract thinking

7. Misplacing things

8. Changes in mood or behavior

9. Changes in personality

10. Loss of initiative

For more Alzheimer's information:

Alzheimer's Association: (800) 272-3900

13th annual Memory Walk

Sunday, Oct. 3 @ 2 p.m., starting at Riverside Park in La Grande

To register: call 963-4181 or log onto www.alzheimers-oregon.org

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