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Two years ago, I was at the climbing gym working on a “problem,” (V5 at Ironworks for you climbers) flinging my body up the wall to grab a left hand hold that was just out of reach. I backed off and attempted an easier climb. As I begun this climb, on the first move, everyone around me heard a loud “pop,” the sound of my ring finger tendon popping. Over the next two years, this hand injury cascaded into a sprained ankle (rolled on a treadmill), a burning knee (steep descent running) and a painful frozen shoulder (overhead luggage bin).
I had every mental excuse not to attend an exercise class. Yet here I am, in a gymnasium filled with 200 black yoga mats. I choose a mat close to the front, because it was going to be hard to follow along.
The reason I’m here is to support The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement. This exercise class and the panel discussion to follow are part of Move for Minds events held every year at Equinox gyms. To get a ticket to this event, I had to raise $250 in donations ($630 whoo).
Once I have my place near the front of the gym, I stretch and casually sample the snack table (spinach souffle in puff pastry). The room fills, the VIPs crowd through the door, and then a woman places one black exercise mat in the conspicuously empty space in front of me, to the left. Maria Shriver takes that mat, wearing what we’re all wearing: a Move for Minds t-shirt, black leggings and sneakers.
Maria Shriver is a journalist, writer and advocate who takes on big challenges – like Alzheimer’s. She founded The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement to aim her spotlight and intellect on the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s and caring for Alzheimer’s. Ms. Shriver’s mother, Eunice Shriver, changed the world during a time when real power was reserved for men by advocating for the rights of people living with disabilities.
The program begins, introductions are made, and Pam Montana takes the small stage.
Pam is in her 50’s, I’m guessing. She begins, “Imagine yourself in a corporate job at Intel, managing a large team, traveling the world. My issue started around 2015. It’s really a problem when you can’t learn technology, and you work at a technology company.” At work, Pam was repeating her sentences and stories, asking the same questions over and over again.
“It took three years to get the diagnosis. As devastating and sad as it was, part of me was grateful because I knew something was wrong and no one believed me. Everyone kept dismissing me because they said I looked fine. And I do look fine. Alzheimer’s is not on my face. It’s in my brain.
“Being here with you is my new job. To make sure that everyone knows what Alzheimer’s looks like [hint: she looks like any normal woman you’d see], trying to remove the stigma.
“With this disease, people are so afraid to come out of the shadows. People have cancer and they’re telling the world. People have Alzheimer’s and they are sitting at home alone.”
People are terrified. They don’t want the diagnosis. I know my father didn’t want a diagnosis. What would it mean? Losing the driver’s license, getting evicted from assisted living when it became “too much,” friends ostracizing and then forgetting him. I hear you Pam.
Pam blogs to share her Alzheimer’s story with the world. She serves on the Alzheimer’s Association National Board of Directors.
She says, “This is not my fault, it’s no one’s fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t eat the wrong food. I was a physical education major for God’s sake. I have no shame about this. God gave me this gift so that I can be a light to others and help remove the stigma.”
“If you think something’s wrong, don’t let anyone dismiss it. We are strong, capable, intelligent women and we have the power to educate. If every one of you joined the cause, I think we could make a huge difference in this world.”
Pam, I’m in.
Maria Shriver takes the microphone and begins, “Several years ago, I was looking at ads for Equinox, with the abs and the muscles. I said, ‘That’s where I’m going with Alzheimer’s.’ This conversation belongs in a gym where everyone was thinking about being fit and sexy and sweating and had incredible bodies. Equinox embraced brain health, cognitive training and this class, the first of its kind. Equinox is training its staff about how your brain works with your body, because people at gym’s don’t necessarily connect that the brain is connected to the body.”
I loved hearing that Maria Shriver led a change scientific research. This is how she told it:
“For 15 years I have been working in Alzheimer’s and programs for caregivers, so I’d speak with a lot of women. All these women were telling me, ‘my mother has Alzheimer’s. And my mother. My mother too.’ And I went to see the top neuroscientists, and I said, ‘I think this is affecting women a lot more.’
“And they said, ‘No, that’s not true. It’s just because women live longer.’
“I said NO, it is true!’ And they’d say, ‘No, it’s not true.’
“So I went ahead and created a big report with the Alzheimer’s Association. And I was right. Two-thirds of all the cases of Alzheimer’s are women. They didn’t have that figure, the smartest people in the world.
“The Women’s Alzheimer’s Association was founded to research women’s brains. That’s not sexist, that’s smart. Research where the majority of the cases are, to change the future for men and women.”
Alzheimer is not a disease of the elderly. It starts 20 years before any symptoms come to life. Move for Minds is about reaching out to people in their 20s, 30s and 40s — the people in this gymnasium who are hot and sweaty. The choices we make now impact what kind of brain we’ll have in our 60s, 70s and 80s.
“We’re all going to end up as caregivers in this country unless you find a cure for this disease,” said Ms. Shriver.
The Equinox exercise instructor took the stage and led us in a non-stop hour-long workout. Equinox designed this exercise class to challenge the mind. Of course, all exercise improves memory and cognitive functioning. This class was challenging, but not impossible.
I am standing two exercise mats from Maria Shriver.
I kept us as best as I could. My right shoulder was injured and didn’t move much, so I did “halfsies” of everything. Towards the end, I sat out a few exercises. Ms. Shriver kept going, even though she must have done a similar exercise class the day before, at another Move for Minds event.
Lily Sarafan, CEO of Home Care Assistance, offered this insight, “Many caregivers have to drop out of their careers and their lives. One in 4 American adults is caring for an aging loved one, but those caring for a partner with Alzheimer’s are 7x more likely to experience symptoms of physical and cognitive health issues.
“We’re here to talk not just about treating the 85 year old, but their adult children spending 20 hours a week or more at the expense of their own health and wellness. Go to homecareassistance.com/womensalzheimersmovement to apply for a couple of days off to tend to your own health, and we’ll provide professional care for your loved one.
We are adding lifespan, and it’s just as important to focus on the healthspan for the generation that’s providing care.”
Two days later I was sore from this class and walking like a penguin.
Something clicked inside of me at Move for Minds. We need to hear the obvious truths many times, and for the tellers of these truths, they hope that this time is the one time we are ready to hear it. I was ready to hear that I needed to start exercising again now. Not later when my shoulder was recovered.
There’s been a lot of resistance from the little voice in my head saying, “go back to sleep,” but I’ve been getting up earlier. Up at 6:00 am, then up at 5:30, and now up at 5:00 am. Three days a week, I lace up my running shoes and do a slow jog around the neighborhood, and other days I stay indoors and work on my shoulder. Slowly I’m getting there, and my fitness app tells me my fitness is “very good” for my age and gender.
So thank you Maria Shriver for raising the bar, and to Move for Minds for getting me out of a rut.