Article by Julia Stiles
Three years ago on a family vacation, Walter Dawson's 80-year-old father started acting disoriented and confused. Doctors informed Walter that his father had a disease called Alzheimer's and would need a lot of special care. The costs of health care were so great and so little was known about the disease, Walter started a letter writing campaign to his local senators and leaders such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He went to Washington to visit some of these politicians, spoke on radio and television, all in an attempt to increase awareness of how difficult an illness like Alzheimer's can be on a family.
Julia: What can you tell us about Alzheimer's?
Walter: Well, most people think it only affects old people, but the youngest case was a 29 year old. It is a disease that affects the brain, it eventually causes the whole brain not to be able to function. The early symptoms are forgetfulness and feeling like you are confused. There needs to be a lot more research about Alzheimer's because even doctors don't know all that much about it.
Julia: How did you deal with the pain of seeing your father when he first became sick?
Walter: I was really upset and sad, we had to come back home from our vacation in Disneyland and I was really sad about that too. That was in California, August 1991. But I dealt with it. I had to become more responsible and had to start doing a lot more things that my dad once did. One of the first symptoms he had was he would lost his patience really easily so I had to behave more, which was good for my mother.
Julia: Were you ever embarrassed by your father, like when your friends came over to your house?
Walter: Not really, because for a long time after he got sick, nobody ever came over, because we were too busy. Also, he was put into a hospital right away.
Julia: What would you tell other kids who know someone with Alzheimer's?
Walter: Well, right now, there seems to be no end to it and someday they will find a cure, but right now it doesn't look that way. Try to cope with it the best you can even though it is hard sometimes. I have some close friends who understand and that is helpful. To get rid of stress I sometimes use my baseball bat to hit things, like apples. I like to play baseball, and other hobbies. I try to have a normal life.
Julia: Did you ever get annoyed or mad at your father because of the things he did?
Walter: Maybe a couple of times, yes. It has made me feel closer than ever to my mother. I see my father about three times a week. I am glad that he still always recognizes me because the doctors told me that he wouldn't. Some of the other patients I have met at the nursing home don't recognize me any more.
Julia: You did a lot of campaigning for president Clinton to be elected, based on his interest in health care. Now, how do you think things are going on Capital Hill?
Walter: I think that it's good, what he started, but is going awfully slow and there is a lot of interference from Republicans and I am afraid that they are not going to get everybody covered. Long-term care is not going to be in any of the proposals. It should be included, because it would cover people with Alzheimer's and nursing home patients.
Julia: You have become somewhat of an activist because of this, what advice would you offer other kids who are interested in making waves, getting things changed?
Walter: Be strong and accepting without letting all the problems go to your heart or affect you. Work very hard. Try to be patient. I have written a lot of letters. I wrote to President Clinton. I wrote to my senators from Oregon. I wrote to National Public Radio. I hope my letters might do some good.
Walter Dawson is 12 years old and lives with his mother, Clara, in Falls City, Oregon. He hopes to go into politics when he grows up. His favorite president is John F. Kennedy. He has one dog, Kate, a black mutt.
The Alzheimer's Association is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to research about Alzheimer's. For more information, call them at 1 800-272-3900.
Originally published in the September-October 1995 issue of ZuZu Magazine