Modesto doctor turns personal experience into helping spread Alzheimer’s awareness
When Mary Lou started showing the signs of dementia, her son, Dr. Todd Smith, didn’t recognize them. It wasn’t until a kind stranger showed up at Todd’s door with a lost Mary Lou, that Todd knew that his mother couldn’t be left alone any longer. Fifteen years after Mary Lou’s death, Todd is making sure other families know more about the signs than he did. With the help of his company, Sutter Health, Todd is volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association® to help spread awareness.
A love of sports
Mary Lou, an avid athlete, went through college on a P.E. scholarship. She loved all sports, but especially tennis. She became a physical therapist, which at the time was a primarily male dominated profession. When her husband died, she took on the role of single mother, caring for her then five-year-old son, Todd.
Todd spent his childhood surrounded by physical therapists. Mary Lou instilled a love of sports into her son which is why he eventually became an orthopedic surgeon. Mary Lou continued to work until she retired at the age 65 and continued to be active until she physically couldn’t do it anymore.
Piles of stuff
Mary Lou was an exceedingly neat person. “Everything had a place, and everything was put away,” said Todd. “The house was cleaned every Saturday morning before you could do anything.”
However, Mary Lou began to create piles of things around her house that needed to put away. Despite this, Todd never thought his mom was showing a sign of cognitive decline. “In hindsight it was obvious,” said Todd. “She wasn’t remembering where to put everything.”
It wasn’t until Mary Lou forgot her brother-in-law’s birthday party that it became clear that something was wrong. Todd decided his mother shouldn’t be living in a town by herself anymore. Mary Lou moved to a new house a few blocks from Todd’s.
Getting the mail
Mary Lou lived there for several years until one day when she went to get the mail. After picking up her mail, instead of returning home, she wandered down the street eventually ending up at an office building.
A kind man there recognized that Mary Lou had dementia. He saw the mail in her hand which luckily had Todd’s address on it. He kindly put Mary Lou in his car and drove her to Todd’s house.
Alzheimer’s disease causes people to lose their ability to recognize familiar places and faces. It’s common for a person living with dementia to wander or become lost or confused about their location, and it can happen at any stage of the disease. Six in 10 people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly.
“She went down to the mailbox and just kept walking,” said Todd. “The kindness of strangers will never fail to amaze me. He had a family member with Alzheimer’s disease and recognized she had it. That was our wakeup call that she should not be left alone.”
Todd moved his mother into a care setting two blocks from his home, where she lived for the next six years. While Todd and his wife had their challenges with the care setting, overall it was a positive experience. “We had challenges where we had to make sure that when she fainted, they didn’t call 911 and take her by ambulance to the hospital,” said Todd. “It took us a while to get that taken care of, but she got really good care there. She remembered me all the way to the end, but I was the only one.”
Sadly, Mary Lou died in 2008.
Volunteering with the Association
Fifteen years later, Todd, who now works for Sutter Health in Modesto, wanted to make a difference. At this same time his company offered a benefits program that encouraged him to get involved with something he was passionate about. Reflecting on his experience with his mother, and wishing he’d been more aware of the signs while she was in the earlier stages of the disease, he chose Alzheimer’s disease – as his charity of choice.
The Alzheimer’s Association Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter is governed by a volunteer board of directors, responsible for planning, creating and implementing strategies and tactics in service to our mission. Todd thought that this volunteer role would be a good fit for him.
“In 2022 I started talking with Elizabeth Edgerly, [Alzheimer’s Association executive director of the Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter], about what being on their board of directors would look like,” said Todd. “As luck would have it there was a spot that was opening up in 2023.”
Joining the Walk
Unbeknownst to Todd, while he was learning more about becoming a member of the board, his coworker Gino was working on making their company the Presenting Sponsor for the local Walk to End Alzheimer’s® event in Modesto.
Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest fundraiser for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. This inspiring event calls on participants of all ages and abilities to join the fight against the disease.
Todd and Gino are also friends that meet up regularly. “The conversation came up [about Walk] and I thought, ‘Hmm isn’t that funny’” said Todd. “I told him what I was doing on my end. I told him to keep me involved because I’d like to be as involved as I can.”
Currently both Todd and Gino volunteer for the Modesto Walk Committee and are part of the Executive Leadership Team. Together they help recruit local companies and businesses to start teams and sponsor the event.
Reaching more people
Gino was successful in getting Sutter Health to become the proud local Presenting sponsor for Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Modesto. According to information recently released at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference ®, researchers from Rush Medical College in Chicago estimate that of the 74,900 people over the age of 65 in Stanislaus County, 11.6% are living with Alzheimer’s.
Todd believes that far too many people who are unknowingly living with some form of dementia end up in hospitals because they and their friends or family don’t know or recognize the signs. “It’s all about awareness and education,” said Todd. “It’s about recognizing the early signs so you can intervene more quickly, creating less of a stigma about [the disease] and understanding what resources exist. Not only for the [person living with the disease] but also the caregivers. They’re living though it just as much as the [person with the disease] is.
“I thought [this cause] was important as an organization. Between the hospital and the foundation, we have a significant reach in the community in terms of who we see. How can we better promote awareness so people know where they can go if they have questions or if they have challenges? It’s as simple as making sure people are aware of the website and the [24/7 Helpline (800.272.3900)].”
Become a volunteer
Todd encourages others to get involved, even if it’s just on Walk day. “It’s amazing what you get back by volunteering to help others. There’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride in doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do. I personally really like that and a lot of other people do too. I think other people like taking time out to give back and I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”
It’s not too late to become a volunteer. Visit alz.org/WalkVolunteer to find out how.