Young advocates put a new face on Alzheimer's disease

April 23, 2012

On the first night of the 2012 Alzheimer's Association Advocacy Forum, young advocates met to network and exchange ideas about recruitment and engagement of their peers in policy efforts.

Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer, Alzheimer's Association, welcomed nearly 100 advocates aged 18 to 35 to the Forum by noting their importance in the greater movement to end Alzheimer's.

"You have really unique stories. Unfortunately, they are not unique enough, but you are the ones who have chosen to be here. You guys are the heroes," said Geiger. "You will look back on this time and know that you were part of the movement to change the trajectory of Alzheimer's disease. I can't thank you enough for being here."

A panelist of young advocates, all leaders of local groups, addressed the crowd and covered topics including recruitment, retention and fundraising activities, all designed to engage a younger audience in the movement to end Alzheimer's.

Panelist Chris Romito of ALZTogether, a young advocate group of the Alzheimer's Association Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter, works to foster awareness of the disease through the group's activities.

"Awareness is the single most powerful tool we have as young advocates," Romito said. "We have no survivors of Alzheimer's and that makes our efforts even more significant."

Annually, ALZTogether collaborates with the Prudential Building in Boston to light the structure purple for the cause. "When it comes to awareness, we think big and think purple!" said Romito.

Panelist McKenzie Kelley, co-president of the Young Champions group at the Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter, drives efforts to provide support to her peers who are facing Alzheimer's. Kelley, a self-described "doer," connected with her Alzheimer's Association chapter after her mother was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer's at age 51.

"We saw the need to create a support group for young people in our area," said Kelley. "We meet monthly and it's a great opportunity to connect with people our age in similar situations."

Members of the audience asked questions, focusing on how to start a young advocate group in their area. Suggestions to use social networking, university volunteer fairs and resources at the local chapter came from the panelists.

"No group is too small to do this," said Romito. "This is just about getting people engaged, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Anyone can raise money to help end Alzheimer's."

After the conclusion of the panel, advocates exchanged ideas for engagement at home and in Washington, often greeting each other with a hug or warm handshake.

"Our representatives aren't used to people in their 20s coming in. We're bringing a new face to this disease," said Kelley. "Young people can take Capitol Hill by storm and show them something they haven't seen before."

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