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When someone you love has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it may seem like you’re the only person in the world who’s struggling and sacrificing.

Hundreds of people in purple gathered Sunday at Riverside Park to make one thing clear: Nobody walks alone.

The 10th annual Columbia/Marquette County Alzheimer’s Walk focused a spotlight not only on various forms of dementia, but also on Portage’s leadership in serving the families of people who have everything from occasional but worrisome memory lapses to severe and debilitating memory loss.

Paul Rusk, executive director of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, cited as an example the recent efforts to make Portage a dementia-friendly community. As of last month, 37 groups in Columbia County – 35 of them in Portage – completed training offered by the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin. Those who have received training include caregivers, transportation drivers, city workers, senior meal site managers, public safety workers and those who work with older people.

Rusk also cited the founding of Memory Cafes, including the one held in the Portage Public Library on the fourth Wednesday every month, where people with dementia and their caregivers can get together.

“You’re providing a great deal of leadership,” Rusk said.

The money raised at the walk, and similar events throughout Wisconsin, stays in the state to provide services for people who have dementia and those who care for them.

Larry Day, honorary family chairman of Sunday’s walk, spoke about how vital it is for caregivers to have support of all kinds.

“Care giving is a tough job. Take care of yourself,” he said. “I know you’re all sacrificing on a continuous basis. If you have a family member you’re caring for, it’s very important that you’re there.”

Cheryl Kearns can attest to the challenges of care giving.

Before her team, called Team Sonic Booms, started off on the walk, Kearns had a purple heart painted on her cheek, in memory of her mother, Joan Ricks, who died on Dec. 29, 2013 at age 77.

Ricks enjoyed her job at the Portage Walmart store, which she’d held for 15 years. But in 2008, at about the time the store was being remodeled, she started getting lost inside what was once a familiar place.

“They’d find her in different areas, and she’d have trouble remembering how she got there,” Kearns said.

When Ricks retired from Walmart, her husband, Lloyd Ricks Sr., was her primary caregiver, until she moved to the Willow Court memory care area of the Columbia Health Care Center in Wyocena (where another daughter, Dianna Lang, is activities director).

When her mother was living at home, Kearns said, help was scarce in the rural area around Pardeeville where they lived, and Joan Ricks was prone to wandering away.

But until her last years, Kearns said, her mother walked in Alzheimer’s Walks, under the watchful eyes of loved ones.

“Her health was wonderful,” Kearns said. “It’s just her memory that failed her.”

Janet Wiegel, outreach specialist for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, said help is available – from the Alliance, and from other people who know, firsthand, what it’s like to love someone whose memory is fading.

“This,” she said Sunday, “is why we get together.”

Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde

Portage Daily Register Reporter