AUGUSTA — Jeannie Conley lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease in February.

On Saturday, she and seven other members of the “Conley Clan” walked to remember him.

“It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible disease,” Jeannie Conley said as she prepared for the walk in the Buker Community Center gymnasium. “We hope there’s an end to it sometime.”

Conley’s father, Ed Conley, of Skowhegan, was a town selectman and a well-known member of the community who lived with the disease for five years.

The Conley Clan, which raised nearly $2,000, was among an estimated 200 people who walked 2.8 miles Saturday to raise awareness and money to fight the disease. Despite the cold and rain — it was 42 degrees and drizzling just before the morning walk — the group wanted to have a visible presence on the streets of Augusta as they marched down Western Avenue, by the State House and back up Capitol Street.

“It has such tremendous impact on entire families,” said Laurie Trenholm, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Maine.

Trenholm said she and others in Maine feel a sense of urgency about the disease because Maine has the oldest population in the country and Alzheimer’s is expected to afflict growing numbers of baby boomers as they age. Right now, 37,000 people in Maine have the disease, and 5.4 million are living with it nationwide.

Alzheimer’s was first discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who “noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness,” according to the National Institute on Aging, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s an irreversible, progressive brain disease that destroys memory and thinking skills.

Among those participating in the walk Saturday was Julie Parisien, an Olympian and World Cup Skier who now works as a nurse, said Gary Crocker, chairman of the walk in Augusta. Other caregivers took part in the walk as well.

“Given their circumstances, I want to make sure if they just smile once in a day, then I’ve done something to make that day pleasurable for them,” said nurse supervisor Deb French, who works at Glenridge, a long-term-care facility run by MaineGeneral Health. “Everyone has their knack, and mine happens to be with anyone with Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

The number of people with Alzheimer’s in Maine is expected to grow from 37,000 to more than 53,000 by 2020, according to a draft of the Maine State Plan on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias. The task force was created by legislation passed in 2011 and is charged with putting a plan in place to accommodate the growing need.

“It’s the sixth leading cause of death, with no cure and no way to stop the progression,” Trenholm said.

The money raised by the walk helps pay for a hotline (800-272-3900), support groups, conferences, a “safe return” program and other supports for families. She emphasized that while the disease afflicts older people, it also affects everyone in a patient’s family.

One of those affected is Hayden Elwell, 13, of Readfield, who was among the walkers on Saturday.

“My grandma has Alzheimer’s,” he said. “It’s hard seeing her go through that.”

Hayden’s friend, Nathan Delmar, 13, of Manchester, said he wanted to support his friend and others coping with the disease.

“It’s something in my lifetime that maybe can be cured,” he said.

Susan Cover — 621-5643

[email protected]

Alzheimer’s facts

37,000 people in Maine have Alzheimer’s disease.

5.4 million in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s

It takes five to seven people to care for one Alzheimer’s patient

The help-line number is 800-272-3900

Source: Alzheimer’s Association of Maine

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