A red sea washed over the Wisconsin River levee Sunday.
But unlike the recent devastating deluges, it was just the kind of flood that people struggling with dementia love to see — a flood of awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and a deluge of support for extended families touched by dementia.
Hundreds participated in the Columbia/Marquette County Alzheimer’s Walk, which started and ended at Riverside Park.
Janet Wiegel, chairwoman of the organization planning the walk, said the participants’ T-shirts this year are red, and feature an image of the Capitol in Madison, because this marks the 20th anniversary of Alzheimer’s walks in the state, which is why the color choice is a nod to the University of Wisconsin.
Sunday’s walk in Portage was the 12th annual local walk.
It was Wiegel who proclaimed, before the walk started, “Look, it’s like a sea of red out there.”
She said it reminded her of the first time she participated in such an event.
Both her parents had dementia — two different forms of syndromes in which memory gradually but unrelentingly fades away.
When Wiegel saw the number of participants at that first event, she remembered being astonished at how many people’s lives are touched by dementia — and being told that the participants represented only a small portion of those who either live with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, or who care for someone who does.
One of those people is Montello artist Cyndi Turner.
She brought to the walk a painting she had created, with the central motif of the violet-blue flowers called forget-me-nots.
For a donation of at least $10 to the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, anyone could have Turner add any name — of a person with dementia, of a caregiver, of anyone — to the painting.
As she added dozens of names, Turner pointed to one in the lower right-hand corner: Betty J. Ripple. That was her mother. She had dementia.
So did another man, whose name also was on the painting. He was a resident of Sunrise Point Adult Family Home in Montello, which Turner owns.
“I lost this gentleman just last week,” Turner said. “He’d just turned 50.”
Turner said her painting — which she offers as a traveling exhibit — features forget-me-nots that are faded, like the memories of people with dementia, and some that are vibrant, “in the hope that we will have a cure.”
Carol Koby of Madison, interim executive director of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, lost her husband, David Severson, to dementia in 2001.
While she was caring for her husband, she recalled, she drove by the organization’s headquarters, saw the sign, walked into the office with tears streaming down her face and asked for help.
And there is help in Columbia and Marquette County, Koby said.
For example, there’s the ongoing effort to create a dementia-friendly community, so that anyone struggling with memory loss feels welcome, and accommodated, at public facilities.
There are memory cafes, including one at the Portage Public Library from 1 to 3 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month, and another at the Westfield Village Hall from 10 a.m. to noon on the first Wednesday of each month. Memory cafes are social gathering places where people with early Alzheimer’s or other mild forms of memory loss can gather in a relaxed atmosphere.
And, through the Columbia County Department of Health and Human Services, there are opportunities for training and retreats for caregivers.
Dan Garrigan said he can attest to the reality that, when someone has dementia, every family member is touched.
The Garrigan family — participating as a group called “Jerry’s Kids” — walked in memory of Garrigan’s father, who died in March just short of his 82nd birthday.
At first, Jerry Garrigan’s forgetfulness seemed like a normal sign of aging. But gradually, he came to need around-the-clock care.
Dan Garrigan characterized his mother, Darlene, as a “silent angel” who shouldered the lion’s share of care for her husband.
However, Dan Garrigan said, the family also drew strength from Jerry. His Alzheimer’s disease caused him to repeat a saying over and over again: “Keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart.”
That’s just what the walkers did, as they made their way along the Wisconsin River levee path, to the tune of “Walking on Sunshine.”