Eleanor and Bonnie Blair at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway
Five-time Olympic gold medalist, Bonnie Blair, has been helping create greater public awareness for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia for more than a decade. She began her involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association, Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter, in 2001 as the celebrity walker for Kenosha County’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s. “If I am able to help an organization like the Alzheimer’s Association because of the success that I’ve had as an Olympic speed skater, or the name I’ve created, then that makes me feel awesome,” said Bonnie.
But Bonnie also has a very close and personal connection to the cause. Her mother Eleanor was formally diagnosed at age 84 with a form of dementia. Bonnie and her five siblings grew up in Champaign, Illinois where Eleanor enjoyed a successful career in real estate, and continued to work until her early 80’s. “In 2000, my sister Angela and I asked mom to move to Milwaukee,” said Bonnie. “She was all for moving. But once she was here, I started to notice small signs that things might not be quite right.”
A couple of years later Eleanor’s symptoms became more pronounced. “On her way home from the 2002 Olympics my mom got extremely sick,” Bonnie recalls. “Angela barely got her off the plane and to Waukesha Memorial Hospital. After that, she was on so much medication. We noticed that she had become extremely forgetful and didn’t remember to take her medications. That’s when we decided to get her formally tested for dementia.”
For a while Eleanor enjoyed life in assisted living, but then had to be placed in a more secure facility after she experienced a few episodes of wandering. Eleanor didn’t thrive in that environment. Bonnie and Angela, who were both raising young families, faced a dilemma. Neither daughter was in a position to care for Eleanor in their own homes. But as luck would have it, older sister Mary, who lived in Colorado, was at the perfect point in her life to personally care for Eleanor. “Mom did much better living with Mary,” said Bonnie. “It was a familiar place for her and she didn’t experience the anxiety or depression that we had seen previously.”
Eleanor lived happily in Colorado until she passed away in September, 2004 from complications of pneumonia. In the two months previous to her death, Eleanor enjoyed seeing all six of her children. “Alzheimer’s and dementia are horrible diseases,” said Bonnie. “I feel very fortunate that my mom still knew me before she passed away.”
Today, Bonnie remains active with the Alzheimer’s Association as an Alzheimer’s Champion. Last September, she was the celebrity walker at Waukesha County’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s. And In 2011, the Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter established the “Blair Cares” award in her honor, which she presents annually to one of the chapter’s exemplary volunteers. This year, Bonnie is proud to be the honorary chair of the 2013 Mardi Gras Gala, a premiere soiree and benefit that will be held on February 12th at the Milwaukee Art Museum.