Some Duluth College Students Balancing School, Work, and Caring for Family Members with Alzheimer’s


DULUTH, Minn. — Two college students in Duluth helped raise $2,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association through the local restaurant they work at, motivated by their personal connections to the disease that currently has no cure.

Adam Streiff and Johanna Unden work at the restaurant Tavern On The Hill in Duluth, while also studying for their college classes and caring for their loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

Johanna lost her grandmother to Alzheimer’s, and her mom was diagnosed with it last year at age 66.

“It’s really hard, especially my mom was like the main caretaker for my grandma,” Unden said. “And to see her having to face that same reality and already having to take care of someone and go through that and then realizing that I’m going to have to become a caretaker and step up in a role that I didn’t think I would have to at this age.”

Adam’s grandmother is 88 with Alzheimer’s.

“She’s got dementia due to her Alzheimer’s, and learning about it has definitely been a little challenging,” Streiff said. “It’s hard to see someone you love slowly lose themselves day by day and just try and stick with them. It’s just a little bit of a struggle but you do it because you love them.”

Right now, there’s no cure for the disease, meaning families and friends are watching their loved ones who have it slowly lose themselves.

“Watching someone that you love, just little bits and pieces kind of change over time, is definitely something that is hard to deal with,” Unden said. “But there’s nothing I can do to change it, so my outlook is I’m thankful that I have time with my mom right now, not everyone gets the luxury. Some people, you know, car accidents happen every day, tragedies, so I just take it as, I have time to spend with my mom right now.”

Adam and Johanna helped create a fundraiser at Tavern for the month of September, raising $2,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association, while also supporting the Walk To End Alzheimer’s.

“It is very heartwarming to see more and more young people involved,” Brenda Conley, the community engagement manager for the Alzheimer’s Association, said. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of younger people being affected by the disease, and so a lot of the younger people now involved in the Walk and volunteering with the organization are doing it because they have parents touched by the disease, not just grandparents. So we are seeing a younger demographic with our events and our volunteers as well.”

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates 13.8 million Americans ages 65 and older could be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by 2050.

What causes Alzheimer’s is still shrouded in mystery, but Sara McCumber, an APRN and CNP with Essentia Health’s neurology department, said the changes in our brains that may lead to the disease can happen decades before symptoms show up.

“There are brain changes that may be happening 20 years in advance, and what some of the research is showing is that some strategies that can be used to help prevent some of those symptoms are some of the same steps that can be taken to help prevent heart disease.”

McCumber says while there is still so much to learn about why Alzheimer’s and dementia sets in, there are ways to reduce risk factors.

First, stay active.

“Trying to get a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week, that helps with blood flow to the brain,” McCumber said.

Also, keep your mind working by learning new skills and socializing.

“Whether it’s a book club or doing crossword puzzles or other ways, but learning new things, learning a new language,” she said.

McCumber adds that not smoking, controlling your blood pressure, and eating healthy can go a long way too, especially reducing fat and sugar in your diet, and adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Researchers still haven’t found the causes of this disease or the cure for it.

But, McCumber says she still has hope.

“I think things will change dramatically in the next ten years,” McCumber said. “I think there’s a lot of research as we have the population is aging, as the baby boomers are aging…there’s going to be radical changes, so I have hope.”

For Adam and Johanna, that’s why it’s so important to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association while soaking in as much time as they can with the ones they love.

“Just making sure she’s doing okay and has someone to talk to especially during the quarantine and all that,” Streiff said.

“I could look at it in a negative light and get down about it and throw a pity party,” Unden said. “Or I could make the best of it, and my family’s been really helpful in doing that and making sure that we just enjoy our time and work through it together.”

To learn about the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, click here, and for a list of resources that can help caretakers of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, click here.

To donate to the Alzheimer’s Association, click here.

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