New York, NY (PRWEB) April 22, 2010
"That disease is only for old people. It wouldn't affect such a young man," Katherine Henley, 18, wrote. "But it did. And it was my dad."
With compassion and raw emotion, Henley of Phoenix, AZ has chronicled the loss of her father to early onset Alzheimer's disease, a rare form of the brain disorder, in an essay written for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's AFA Teens for Alzheimer's Awareness College Scholarship.
AFA announced today that Henley is the 2010 winner of the $5,000 college scholarship. First runner-up is Natalie Stadelman of Hudson, OH, and second runner-up is Rebecca Herzberg of Cherry Hill, NJ.
In their essays, the major requirement in the competition, all three high school seniors shared a strong desire to change the way the world thinks about Alzheimer's disease, which currently affects as many as 4.5 million Americans. With advanced age the greatest risk factor for the disease, the incidence is expected to escalate in the coming decades as the nation's population ages.
While Henley illustrated that the disease can also affect individuals even in their 30s and 40s--called early onset or young onset, Stadelman emphasized that individuals with Alzheimer's disease still have their unique passion and energy so long as people make an effort to draw it out, and Herzberg concluded that political leaders need to hear the stories of individuals with the disease in order to change its future course.
Evident of the countless number of teens touched by Alzheimer's disease, nearly 1,300 college-bound students applied for AFA's annual scholarship this year.
"We continue to be amazed by the compassion shared by these young people and their ability to take away life-changing lessons from their experiences of interacting with loved ones and strangers with Alzheimer's disease," said Eric J. Hall, AFA's president and chief executive officer.
Henley's heartfelt essay describes the close bond she shared with her father, Richard, the impact of "watching him slowly become someone else," and his death four years ago at the age of 44.
"He wouldn't call my mom, my siblings or me by our names because he was afraid he would confuse them. He couldn't remember the simplest of things, like how to tie his shoes or whether his watch was facing the right way. 'What's this?' he would ask. 'It's a spoon, Daddy. You eat with it,'" she wrote.
Henley also relayed how their mutual love for animals--her only source of comfort amidst the emotional upheaval wrought by her father's illness--has inspired her career choice.
"Now, I can pursue my dream of becoming a veterinarian. I can continue honoring my dad and do some better things in the world that he wasn't able to do," said Henley, who plans to attend Colorado State College in Fort Collins next fall.
While a significant number of other applicants also wrote about losing their parents to early onset Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for about 10 percent of cases of the brain disorder, most teens recalled how the disease has impacted their grandparents, great-grandparents and other older relatives.
Regardless of the age of the individuals affected by the disease, teens compassionately portrayed how their family life has been turned upside down, how they've been thrust into caregiving roles at a young age, and how much the harsh reality of memory loss hurts, especially when a loved one forgets who they are.
But, amidst the pain, many teens expressed optimism.
For example, after Stadelman produced a DVD of photographs depicting her grandmother's life and its viewing, to her surprise, garnered a reaction from her grandmother, the teen gained a new understanding of the disease.
"In that instant, I discovered that everyone has a resilient force, a core, and no matter what happens, it is always there--we just need to tap into it," she wrote in her essay.
AFA established the annual scholarship so that teens could use the opportunity to reflect on the impact Alzheimer's disease has had on them, their families and their communities. It is one of the many features of AFA's teen division, which is aimed at educating and engaging youth and connecting them with peers whose family members are affected by the disease. Teens are encouraged to express themselves on a bulletin board, seek support from AFA social workers and set up AFA Teens chapters in their community.
According to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and United Hospital Fund, more than one million children nationwide care for sick or disabled parents and grandparents; Alzheimer's disease and related dementias were the most prevalent illnesses.
For more information about AFA Teens and to read the winning scholarship essays, visit http://www.afateens.org.
The Alzheimer's Foundation of America is a nonprofit organization based in New York City that focuses on providing optimal care to individuals with Alzheimer's disease and related illnesses, and their families, and unites 1,400 member organizations nationwide that provide hands-on programs. AFA's services include a toll-free hot line with counseling by licensed social workers, a free caregiver magazine and National Memory Screening Day. For information, call 866-AFA-8484 or visit http://www.alzfdn.org.
Photos available upon request.
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