Gabbie Young remembered to feed her cat today. She can tell a person exactly what part of their outfit each of her three sisters would like the most, mainly according to color. She can describe in detail the incredibly tall building that she saw one time when she visited family in Kansas. Gabbie Young can remember these small specifics and more, but the nine-year-old can’t remember when her father began struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s, as she had not even been born at the time.
Dennis Young, 56, had been struggling with Alzheimer’s long before he was dealing with his own form of the disease, as his mother suffered from the same ailment for years prior to his own diagnosis. Gabbie has experienced aspects of Alzheimer’s her whole life, growing up in a house where the memory-impacting disease was an everyday obstacle. This unique perspective has presented her with the ambition to save her father, to find a cure that will help others who share his position.
“We’ve had a fundraiser at Arby’s and we’re gonna have a big yard sale on the 19th and 20th of May,” Gabbie said as she stroked Panda, the black and white cat that stretched across the table in front of the young girl. “We’ve had one at Buffalo Wild Wings, and I’m going to set my lemonade stand up at the Farmer’s Market this weekend.”
A blue cooler sits directly behind her, piled with Styrofoam cups waiting to be filled with the iced beverage that will generate income for the illness affecting many members of Gabbie’s family and less than five percent of the five million cases of Alzheimer’s nationwide. Valerie Young’s husband just happens to be part of the percentage that fought for a legitimate identification.
“Good luck getting diagnosed when you’re in your forties,” Young, 41, said. “None of the doctors want to identify early onset Alzheimer’s. They just don’t. Who would? Who would want to tell somebody, ‘You have this illness, there’s no cure, and there’s not anything I can do for you.’”
This particular strain of Alzheimer’s is uncommon and begins showing symptoms in people younger than 65. About 200,000 Americans suffer from the form of dementia, but many could go undiagnosed for years because of the difficulty it requires to receive a doctor’s diagnosis.
The Alzheimer’s Association website defines its adversary as “an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, leading to cognitive impairment that severely affects daily living.”
“You just never know how bad it’s gonna be every day,” Young said. “But of course, there’s the frustration of not being able to stay on task. What used to take him maybe 15 minutes to get done now might take him all day. He has to get all of his thoughts together to complete what he started each time he attempts a chore. That’s the worst part because it’s so frustrating for him.”
Gabbie’s mom illustrates the way her youngest daughter has been such an incredible asset to the family, describing her enthusiasm for helping her dad overcome his obstacles when she can tell that he’s struggling.
“Sometimes I help my dad when I know what he was planning to do but he forgets,” said Gabbie, imagining one of the scenarios as she talks. “I always can remind him what he was thinking when he gets a little lost.”
Studies have proven that early-onset Alzheimer’s can begin changing a person’s brain decades before symptoms appear; Young describes a case in which scientists explain that a the brain of a trial patient began altering itself at just 10 years of age.
“I just can’t help but think, ‘Here’s Gabbie, turning 10 in January, and I can’t even imagine that happening,’” said Young.
Her daughter seemed untroubled by the possibility as she chatted about bicycle rides with her father and eagerly presents the recently healed wrist that had broken after a fall on the rain-soaked road outside the house. Gabbie wholeheartedly believes in the rapidly increasing power of medicine and the future that holds a cure for her father’s present affliction.
“I make sure my team works hard because if you wanna be on Team Gabbie you have to work,” said the nine-year-old of her personally founded group of those committed to finding a cure, organized through the Alzheimer’s Association.
“At first I heard on KLRC, the radio station I always listen to, that there was an Alzheimer’s walk in Arkansas,” recalled Gabbie, “and I thought since my dad and grandma and great grandma all have had that same thing that I really needed to start a team of my own, so that they would have someone to help raise money for a cure for everyone like them.”
Gabbie’s parents support her numerous endeavors to fight the disease they’ve lived with for a good portion of their lives, learning more about the stages and complications with every passing year.
“I knew within three months of getting married,” said Young, “which was ten years ago. I knew something was not right in the way Dennis was acting. It would be sporadic random things, one day he would know how to get to Walmart and the next day he wouldn’t.”
Dealing with such a rare and early form of Alzheimer’s can be extremely difficult on a daily basis for anyone involved and little forms of personifying the disease has helped the Young family understand the nature of the illness. Instead of thinking of Dennis Young as the person having trouble remembering where he had last seen Gabbie’s ballet shoes, the family explains that they view the culprit as Alzheimer’s itself.
“We always call it Al,” explained Young. “Al does these things. We say, ‘the recital is in 20 minutes, where did Al hide Gabbie’s shoes.’”
Gabbie and her family can understand the feelings that come with Alzheimer’s, how easy it can be to blame the person who carries the illness, but want to illustrate a new way of thinking for those struggling with the disease.
“The main thing that I think can really help someone that is struggling with Alzheimer’s is for people around them to try and understand what it’s like for them,” said Young, “because so many people get offended by what their loved one is doing, but they need to realize that the person is not doing this, Al is doing this. If you change your perspective in just that small way, it helps so much.”