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Randy Calleja, whose mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease, has been named honorary chairman of the Walk to End Alzheimer's at New Richmond. The event will be Saturday, Sept. 21. (Photo by Judy Wiff)

Walking for his mom

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Walking for his mom
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

The implications of their mom’s illness really hit the Calleja brothers the day she couldn’t find her way back to her home in Somerset after buying groceries at a store in Stillwater, Minn.

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An Oak Park Heights, Minn., policeman called Randy Calleja, asking him to come and get his mother. After shopping, she had gotten lost in a residential neighborhood, pulled her car to the side of the road and waited until the officer noticed and checked on her.

Darlene Calleja, now 78, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about eight years ago. This year, her son Randy Calleja will serve as honorary chairman of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s at New Richmond. His goal is to help others understand how prevalent the disease is and how important it is to find a cure.

“I think what people don’t realize is every family is being touched by Alzheimer’s now in some way,” said Randy, who is food service director at Westfields Hospital and owner of Ready Randy’s Sports Bar and Grill.

“As a family we just saw the disease progress over the years,” he said of the changes, he, his three brothers and their families have witnessed.

His mother was scared, confused and frustrated, said Randy, of the incident in Minnesota. “She said, ‘I just can’t find my way back to Somerset.’”

The incident shook him too, said Randy, who took his mom home and then got a ride back to pick up her car.

“That was the first time I realized it had taken the next level and her safety was at risk.”

About 10 years ago, the family began seeing signs that their mother, a widow, was becoming more forgetful.

“It was always losing something, forgetting something,” said Randy. The family began noticing early symptoms after his father, Tony, who had been the postmaster in New Richmond, died 15 years ago. At first they thought little of the forgetfulness, attributing it to age or stress.

But after she couldn’t find her way home, the four brothers decided it was time for her to give up driving and move into housing with fewer responsibilities.

As Darlene Calleja’s condition progressed, she moved to senior housing at The Deerfield then to assisted living, then to a memory-care section of The Deerfield and now at the St. Croix Health Center, a nursing home.

“She did very well with that,” said Randy of the independent-living arrangement the family tried first, and she did well when it was time for assisted living -- for a time.

“But eventually, it just keeps coming. The meds will slow it down, but they don’t cure it,” he said, adding that, at this point, the most that can be done is to slow the progression of the disease.

His mother has been at the Health Center for four years, and she’s very happy there, said Randy. “They’ve been doing a wonderful job.”

His wife Debbie, their daughter, three sons and two grandchildren and his brothers and their families visit Darlene frequently, and while she doesn’t always remember immediately who is who, she enjoys the visits. Randy thinks having family around helps.

He said his mother nearly always recognizes her sons, though she may not at first know which is which, and her short-term memory is failing.

He said she forgets the visits, often within minutes.

“You can walk out of the room and come back in and you have to start all over again,” said Randy. “She knows within that five-minute period, and then you have to start all over again.”

He added, “When (Alzheimer’s patients) have a good day, you can actually have a conversation, and that’s a precious moment.”

He said he’s often surprised at how well his mother’s memory is, but it’s not always that way.

Sometimes, he said, she will demand to know where he’d been even though he had just visited.

“You just go with it,” said Randy.

“I think my grandkids had a little problem with it at first,” he said. “But she’s still Grandma. She loves children, and that always comes through.”

He said the disease is frightening and frustrating to his mother, who tries hard to keep track of things.

“You can tell (she’s) trying to fight it off -- that’s what it looks like to me,” said Randy, adding that his mother seems simply to agree with what visitors say rather than offering information.

“She has that stigma: ‘I don’t want them to know I don’t know.’”

But then, he said, the next day she will bring up an incident that happened 10 years ago and remember every detail.

“That’s all part of it I guess,” said Randy.

“I thought it was an honor for my family. It’s there, and we need to raise money to cure it,” said Randy of being honorary chairman of the local Walk to End Alzheimer’s. He has been involved with the walk for 13 years, raising money, making food for the event or serving on the committee.

At least 10 of his fellow employees will walk on the Westfields team with him.

Walk is Sept. 21

This year’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s at New Richmond will be held Saturday, Sept. 21, at The Deerfield, 1227 W. 8th St.

This year’s goal is $33,392. Last year the local event raised close to $30,000, said walk chairwoman Jackie Waalen.

Participants may register online or onsite the day of the walk. Walk-in registration starts at 8:30 a.m., and the opening ceremony is at 9:30 a.m.

Donations may be made online, or individuals and families may register to raise money and walk.

Each adult who brings in $100 will receive a purple walk T-shirt. Youths can qualify for a T-shirt by raising $35.

Families, work groups and others are encouraged to register teams which could be just one person or 30 people, said Waalen.

The Westfield Hospital team, of which Randy Calleja is a member, hopes to raise $1,500 to $1,800. They’ve held a car wash, served a meal for staff and held a meat raffle.

To register to participate or for more information about the New Richmond and other walks, go to the website: act.alz.org. Other area walks will be held the same day in Amery, Minneapolis and Red Wing, Minn. The Menomonie walk will be Sept. 28.

For more information, contact Waalen by calling 715-243-3912 or emailing her at jwaalen@preshomes.org.

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Judy Wiff
Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
(715) 426-1049
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