OAKLAND -- Gerri Woolfolk knew something was amiss with her husband when he brought home a dozen burritos for a dinner party that had only four attendees.
Having worked with people suffering from Alzheimer's disease as a teacher and administrator for Oakland Unified School District's adult school program, Woolfolk grew concerned about Leonard's health.
It wasn't just the burrito mishap. Woolfolk had noticed that Leonard, in his late 50s at the time, had uncharacteristically failed to pay some bills while insisting that he had. He also began misplacing items and forgetting where things in the house were stored.
A visit to Leonard's physician didn't ease her concerns.
Leonard's doctor dismissed any connections to Alzheimer's. Instead, as Woolfolk describes it, the doctor "gave me a verbal dress down" concluding, in a mistaken diagnosis, that Woolfolk was overreacting and suggesting that she "get a grip."
"I left the office feeling offended," she said. "After all, I know my husband better than anyone else."
Unfortunately, Woolfolk's suspicions were correct, and Leonard was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a disease that has no cure and is now the sixth-leading cause of death in the country.
The diagnosis devastated the couple and their three children, but rather than allowing the grief to overcome her, Woolfolk chose to turn the experience into an opportunity.
In the 12 years since her husband was found to have Alzheimer's, Woolfolk has worked tirelessly to care for him and to bring others awareness to a disease that frequently makes both patient and caregiver feel helpless.
"If my experience, our family's experience, can help someone else go through these very difficult challenges, then it leaves me with no option but to do everything I can to help," Woolfolk said. "Help, not only my husband, but literally millions of others who are going through this and who are isolated."
Roughly 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and the number of deaths caused by it is rapidly growing.
While deaths caused by other major diseases -- such as heart disease, stroke and prostate cancer -- have decreased in the last decade, the rate of death connected to Alzheimer's has grown.
Meanwhile, the funds dedicated to Alzheimer's research have remained constant while other illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS have seen increases. Roughly $6 billion a year is spent on cancer research, $4 billion on heart disease and $3 billion on HIV/AIDS, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Last year, total spending on Alzheimer's research was $500 million, the association said.
Woolfolk is all too familiar with the statistics and the frustrations that come with convincing a doctor to check for early onset of the disease and then caring for a loved as it ravages his brain, eventually leaving an adult completely dependent on others.
But Woolfolk has turned that familiarity into a learning experience as she became educated about Alzheimer's and began volunteering for the Alzheimer's Association to teach others how to cope.
The 70-year-old Oakland resident has spent hours learning about Alzheimer's, speaking to others who have loved ones with the disease and was chosen last year to be one of 22 members on the advisory council for the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA).
All the while, she has spent countless hours caring for Leonard, 74, who is now staying at Willow Creek, a home in Castro Valley that specializes in caring for Alzheimer's patients.
"She's remarkable," said Ruth Gay, director of public policy for the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada. "She just threw herself into it and became part of the work we do."
Woolfolk admits that, like many others, she initially tried to deal with her husband's illness alone, determined to stay by his side regardless of how debilitating the disease became. But she quickly learned that she needed help and is now teaching that lesson to others, showing them that there are networks available to help.
It's important work, given that studies have shown the health of caregivers frequently deteriorates as they battle the stresses of dealing with someone who has Alzheimer's.
"Caregiving can drain everything you have out of your being, so it is important for caregivers to access those resources out there in the community," Woolfolk said. "Unfortunately, many caregivers don't even have that information."
As a member of the advisory council for NAPA, Woolfolk hopes to focus on that lesson as she helps craft a national plan designed to generate more resources for researching Alzheimer's. The goal is to have enough research in place by 2025 to be able to prevent and effectively treat the disease.
"I know that our worlds are worlds of possibilities," Woolfolk said. "I have gone through all of these challenges to make a difference. I really think my husband knew he was taking me through lessons that I had to learn so that I could help other people."
Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association, said he couldn't think of a better person to have working toward a cure.
"Gerri is such a kind and compassionate person, so her ability to communicate with others is hugely important," Johns said. "She has already made such a difference by speaking out in the community and being an advocate in so many ways."
CLAIM TO FAME: Worked to raise awareness of Alzheimer's disease as volunteer at Alzheimer's Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada and member of National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA) while caring for her husband, who suffers from the disease.
QUOTE: "If my experience, our family's experience, can help someone else go through these very difficult challenges, then it leaves me with no option but to do everything I can to help."
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