As kids, Carol Ackley and Donna Ticonchuk shared summers playing in the park and spent every day in school together since the fourth grade.
Their bonds were strengthened in adulthood as they were joined by Carol’s sister, Lorraine Dias, in becoming Alzheimer’s caregivers. Carol and Lorraine spent many years caring for their parents, Jean and George Dias. Donna, who grew up down the street from them in Vestal, cared for her mother-in-law, June Ticonchuk.
In 2008, Carol and Lorraine started their Walk team, Dias Divas. Donna, who lives in Apalachin, got on board the following year, and now they’ve grown into Dias Divas and Dudes, bringing the men in their lives onto the team.
Their message is one of action.
“We are really working toward a day when there’s a cure for Alzheimer’s,” says Lorraine, who lives in Corning.
They expect to have 12 to 15 people on their team this fall, and they’ve set a fundraising goal of $2,250. Their team members will don purple feather boas, wear tiaras and start the Walk by marching to the team’s theme song, “I Like to Move It” from the movie Madagascar.
“We try and make a fun time of it because it doesn’t need to be sad,” says Carol, who lives in Ithaca.
“We’re getting together to do a good thing,” Donna adds.
“Plus, our parents wouldn’t want it to be a downer,” says Lorraine.
Jean and George Dias were married in 1953. She was a librarian, and he was an electronics engineer in the Air Force. They met at an NCO Club dance on Long Island. He’d been an instructor for Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
According to their daughters, the couple married after George proposed 30 times to Jean. Together, they raised three children in locales from Topeka to France to New York’s Southern Tier.
Looking back, Carol and Lorraine say their mother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s, but she wasn’t diagnosed until several years later. Their father took the brunt of the caregiving early on, but as Jean’s needs grew, the sisters stepped in even as their own lives took them away from their family’s home.
As their mother’s condition worsened, Carol and Lorraine began to notice their father’s own forgetfulness. They were long-distance caregivers for their parents until Jean died on April 7, 2003, and they moved George to an assisted living facility in Steuben County in 2004. They struggled to find the right place for their father, a place that could truly accommodate his dementia and that was safe for him. After three years, they found a facility in Ithaca, where Carol, who had been living in England, moved to be closer to her family.
His illness progressed and he died in February 2009.
“Donna came right after Dad died, and we had a wake right here,” Carol says, sitting in Lorraine’s living room.
They toasted the man Donna had called Georgie B, the woman he had loved and the life they had shared.
Throughout the sisters’ struggles, Donna had been helping her husband Vic take care of his mother. June Ticonchuk had been a fantastic seamstress who was fastidious about her appearance and who raised three boys.
Donna would take her shopping and help her take a bath, do her hair and keep the house clean.
“She’d do things like take meat out and put it like in the cereal cupboard and nobody would know it was there and then you’d walk into the house and you’d smell the meat,” Donna recalls.
Eventually, June told her family she needed to move to a nursing home. She went to a place in Owego, which was close to her family but was not equipped to care for residents with dementia.
“She never got what she needed,” Donna says.
Donna would email Carol, a social worker who has spent most of her career working with the elderly, with questions and seeking advice. She and Vic would visit June almost every day.
June’s condition worsened, and she died in February 2005, a couple of months after her husband.
Their experiences galvanized these friends to take action, to speak out for families and to work toward a cure for Alzheimer’s.
“If we don’t make noise, nobody’s going to hear about it,” Carol says.