Anchoring the Alzheimer's fight Orien Reid, longtime local consumer reporter, now chairs the national Alzheimer's Association. She feels passionately about her work: The disease brought about her mother's death.

Posted: January 14, 2002

Orien Reid's living-room window looks out onto a beautiful tree-lined street in the suburbs. The room is as immaculate and well-coiffed as its owner, the longtime former consumer reporter for Channels 3 and 10. African art and artifacts accessorize the comfy furniture.

Not so comfortable are a few pictures Reid keeps on display.

"This is my mother at a business function in Atlanta," she says with the joyous voice familiar to a couple of generations of local-news viewers. The subject of the photo looks joyful, too, seemingly in robust health and smiling broadly. Reid then shows a photo of herself and her mother just two years later. Mom is haggard-looking and gray, much thinner, and with an almost unknowing smile.

"This is what Alzheimer's can do to you in an extremely short time," Reid says. "This is why we have to find a cure."

Reid has been generally out of the public eye in Philadelphia since 1998, when she retired after 26 years on local television news. But she has been on a public stage for the last two years as the national board chair of the Alzheimer's Association, the largest organization of professionals and volunteers dealing with the diseases of dementia.

Though she has kept her home in Laverock, Montgomery County, just beyond the city's northwestern border, Reid's duties send her around the country and to Europe, attending board meetings, giving speeches, arranging fund-raising activities, and generally promoting awareness of the disease that killed her mother, will afflict 10 percent of the population older than 65, and still has no known cure.

"Alzheimer's is just now getting more recognition, perhaps because we baby boomers are losing our parents and know it may all too soon come to us," says Reid, who at 56 is an early boomer herself. "My mother was diagnosed at age 72. That's only 16 years away for me."

Alzheimer's Association literature says the disease is always fatal, which Reid concedes is not quite correct.

"But it is like AIDS in that it eventually deteriorates the body so you die of something that often otherwise wouldn't have been fatal, or may not have happened," she said. Her mother died of a pulmonary embolism, caused by being unable to walk after she fell and broke her hip - the result of disorientation brought on by Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's is a brain disease that causes dementia, usually in people at least in their 60s. Though it was discovered by the German doctor Alois Alzheimer in 1907, researchers still aren't sure what causes it or whether it is hereditary.

Even testing for Alzheimer's seems somewhat low-tech in today's modern medical-test environment: Doctors evaluate patients by giving them physical exams, making a reasoned judgment of their mental functions, and then trying to assess whether those functions are deteriorating.

Reid says neither her mother nor her stepfather was able to believe early on that the Alzheimer's was real.

"The signs were there, but you don't want to face it," she says. Her mother would come visit and not remember how to cook her favorite meals. She would have mood changes that she hadn't experienced before. But her stepfather, who was 10 years older and always assumed that Reid's mother would be caring for him, would simply say she was being forgetful.

"The turning point for me was when she started going out of the house in her apron," Reid says. "This was a woman who was always properly dressed, always cared about how she looked. I had to look for answers."

While visiting her mother in Atlanta, Reid stopped in to the local Alzheimer's Association office, merely for information. She ended up finding a counselor who helped set up a home health aide for her mother, and sent her to a geriatric doctor more familiar with the disease than their former family doctor.

Reid's mother was diagnosed in 1988. When her stepfather died the next year, Reid had her mother come live with her, which cut down on the health-aide expenses that had reached $700 a week. The move did not come without tension. Reid, though married now, was then a single mother of two teenagers.

"My daughter never did feel comfortable with having a grandmother in the house with dementia. It was a tough time, because I had a demanding job and needed my children's help. It was devastating at times and, sometimes, financially we were just making it," she says.

Her mother died in 1992. Reid was already giving back to the Alzheimer's Association people she believed had been so helpful to her. She helped found the local chapter's fund-raising annual Memory Walk, and started speaking on the disease locally and nationally. She became a member of the board and, soon after she retired from Channel 10, took on the unpaid chairmanship of the national association. She has started a media advisory business, Consumer Connection. Its main client is ShopRite supermarkets, and she is a spokeswoman.

"I intend on making that business grow when I leave the chairmanship next year, but right now this is my passion," she says. "We've got to find a cure for Alzheimer's or Alzheimer's will bankrupt the country."

The association calculates that Alzheimer's costs the nation $100 billion a year in direct medical costs, nursing-home fees, home health aides, and lost production from people who become caregivers for family or friends with the disease.

"Everyone experiences some memory loss as they age," Reid says. "But forgetting three friends' addresses isn't necessarily going to lead to Alzheimer's. It has to do with personality changes, serious memory loss, mood swings, really significant things."

An irony of Alzheimer's, she says, is that, unlike so many other devastating illnesses, it is a disease of richer nations. Because it primarily strikes older people, countries whose populations have shorter lifespans have far fewer cases than the United States or Europe.

"In the next 30 years, there will be 70 million elderly folks, 14 million of whom are likely to get some form of Alzheimer's before they die," Reid says. "If we can even find something that will slow down the progression of the disease for five years, that would help."

She is hopeful that her generation will bring more attention to Alzheimer's and related dementias.

"The one thing I think baby boomers have kept even to this age is that feeling that one person can make a difference," she says. "I had a great TV career, but this has been the most rewarding work experience of my life. You have to be passionate about something, I believe, and this is it for me."

The Alzheimer's Association

The nonprofit Alzheimer's Association offers a wealth of information about the disease, from research to statistics to information for patients, their families and caregivers.

* National Call 1-800-272-3900 or go to www.alz.org.

* Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter Call 215-925-3220 or go to www.alz-sepa.org.

* South Jersey Chapter Call 856-797-1212.

* Delaware Chapter Call 302-633-4420.

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