Spokane resident Amy Shives can remember the words to every song from the Broadway musical “Gypsy.” But she does not remember things her husband told her a week ago, or how to properly swipe a debit card at the cash register.
Shives was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease last summer, forcing her to retire from her job as a counselor at Spokane Community College.
She is 54.
“I was the Girl Scout leader, the ballet mom, the volleyball mom,” Shives said. “… We go from the dichotomy of that to this.”
Calls to the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline increase dramatically after the holidays, said Mark Haven, interim director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Inland Northwest Chapter. The number of calls Monday reached 455, while there are about 350 calls on an average Monday, a spokesperson from the organization said.
“People go home and often haven’t seen their relatives for maybe a whole year or more, and then they notice signs that don’t look right to them and so they get concerned,” Haven said. “They’re curious and they want to know more.”
Early-onset cases like Shives’ represent about 4 percent of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In the U.S., about 5.4 million people have the disease, including about 5,500 in Spokane County.
Shives said it has been difficult for her family to adjust to her short-term memory loss and her being home. Her husband, George, said, “The kids tell their mom something or I tell Amy something and it goes away. She might remember a piece of it a day later or two days later, or it may never come back.”
Now Shives serves as an active voice for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. She said her current medication has done nothing to help her, and her doctors can only hope that it will slow the disease’s progression.
Her team, Shives’ Striders, was the top fundraiser at the 2011 Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and she recently was elected to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Inland Northwest Chapter’s board of directors. She is the first person with the disease to serve on the board.
“Personally, I think it’s the health care crisis of the 21st century,” Haven said.