Summitt's diagnosis raises Alzheimer's awareness

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt hopes her public battle with dementia raises awareness about the disease and inspires people to do more.

Kentucky associate head coach Kyra Elzy is one of many whom Summitt has already touched.

Elzy had already made a New Year's resolution to increase her volunteer work in 2011. So when the 59-year-old Summitt made her announcement in August, she saw a perfect opportunity to honor her former coach and her grandmother, who had Alzheimer's.

Elzy volunteers at Best Friends Day Care in Lexington, Ky., an adult day care for people who require supervision.

"Coach Summitt, she is very courageous, very strong and a very giving person, so for her to come out in public with the type of platform she brings, everybody takes notice, everybody listens," Elzy said. "It was so courageous of her to want to help others. She's a face and a voice that people respect. It's just breathtaking."

Summitt, who revealed in August that she'd been diagnosed with early onset dementia, isn't the only famous person fighting dementia and Alzheimer's.

Many public figures who have faced Alzheimer's, such as former president Ronald Reagan and actor Charlton Heston, were diagnosed late in life and privately faced the disease.

Summitt knew that revealing her diagnosis would help give her a platform about the diseases.

"I think it's going to really touch a lot of people that might not come forward and say, 'I've got dementia.' Hopefully, they'll feel like there's ways you can handle it," she said.

Summitt's example could help others recognize the warning signs of the disease and understand how it can be managed after it is diagnosed.

Angela Geiger, the chief strategy officer for the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association, said she and her staff received more phone calls, e-mails and text messages when Summitt revealed her diagnosis than they had for any other news story related to Alzheimer's.

"At the Alzheimer's Association we cannot thank Pat Summitt enough for disclosing her diagnosis so early in the process and continuing to live her life," Geiger said.

"It really provides an example for other people especially in the early stages that they can live their lives. It's really only recently that we've had people that are early in the disease process really start to talk about this.

"They're helping to destigmatize this disease."

It's also helped inspire others to support people with the disease and Alzheimer's research and awareness.

The Tennessee athletic department has been selling orange T-shirts that say "We Back Pat" for the past two months, with proceeds from the sale going to Alzheimer's Tennessee and the UT Medical Center for research and programs related to Alzheimer's disease at Summitt's request.

Alzheimer's Tennessee also will be the beneficiary of a December concert given in nearby Maryville, Tenn., by country music star Glen Campbell, who revealed in June that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Elzy and her mother spent time as caregivers for Elzy's grandmother, Mary, from the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1992 until her death in 2001.

Mary Elzy was happy-go-lucky and very mobile and would refer to every coach recruiting her granddaughter as "Pat Summitt," because that was the one coach's name she could always recall.

Now she gets a chance to spend more time with people like her grandmother at Best Friends.

"These people are firecrackers. They have more energy and excitement and zest for life than most people walking around," Elzy said. "I think people should take notice. A lot of people forget they still have feelings, they still have thoughts, they still want to enjoy life — what they can remember."

Elzy's Lady Vols teammate, Kara Lawson, is doing her part, too.

Lawson, a guard for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun and an ESPN analyst, is running the New York Road Runners Dash to the Finish Line 5K on Saturday, and her husband, Damien Barling, is running the New York City Marathon the next day to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association in honor of Summitt.

Lawson said she didn't know what kind of response to expect, but by spreading the word through Facebook and Twitter, she and Barling have raised more than $16,000.

She acknowledged she hadn't thought a lot about dementia and Alzheimer's until her beloved coach was diagnosed.

"I had a very rough, rough idea of what it was and how it affected people," Lawson said. "I hadn't had anyone close to me with the disease, so I didn't really understand what it was.

"Coach Summitt has never shied away from a challenge, and she's not scared to put herself out there if it's something believe will help people. It doesn't surprise me that the root of her decision to go public is to help other people with it and help inspire confidence and courage."



Alzheimer's Association:

We Back Pat:

Kara Lawson and Damien Barling's fundraising site: