True Grit: Colorado Couple Won’t Give an Inch to Alzheimer’s (It’s Only Yellow Jell-O)

Newly minted grandparents, Rick and Traci Edmondson of Lafayette, Colo., were looking at retirement on the distant horizon and planning a long-awaited trip to Paris. After 36 years of marriage, they were anticipating many great years and experiences ahead.

Then,DSC_1733 Rick got lost. Driving home from work on a route he knew by heart, he got disoriented. He called his son for directions and got home safely, but he knew something was wrong.

“In the moment it was happening, I was scared to death,” said Rick of the experience. “It was terrifying.”

At age 57, Rick had enjoyed a long, successful career split between landscape architecture and airline management. That soon changed as the couple met with a series of doctors to get to the root of Rick’s memory loss.

“Rick was in a very high stress job,” said Traci. “I figured that was part of it.”

The news no one wants to receive

Three days before Christmas of 2016, they met with Rick’s neurologist. “You have Alzheimer’s,*” he said.

“Hearing the diagnosis is like a bomb going off,” said Traci. “It fragments every aspect of your life.”

The following months were spent in grief and disbelief. Rick’s grandmother had passed away with Alzheimer’s, and he lived in fear of the disease.

“I didn’t know what was coming at me,” he said.

A new approach

Then, one day, Rick had an epiphany.

“Traci,” he said, “this is our destiny.” And from that day forward, his approach to the disease and outlook on life changed.

Since that day, the couple has aggressively addressed his diagnosis – with one qualifier: Rick hates the disease so much that he won’t call Alzheimer’s by name. Instead, he refers to it as Yellow Jell-O, a label shared with a traditional family dessert recipe made with the namesake gelatin, green onions, green olives, cheese and mayonnaise. Rick doesn’t like it either.

Together, Rick and Traci have made significant changes in diet, exercise and sleep. And they have participated in a wide variety of educational and informational programs through the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado’s Boulder Regional Office.

“It is so paralyzing to get a diagnosis like this,” said Traci. “You need help to get out of that grief cycle. The Alzheimer’s Association gives you the tools to get back on your feet. It has changed the course of our journey.”

Not only have Rick and Traci been avid program participants, they are active volunteers for the Alzheimer’s Association. Together, they serve as resources for a class titled “Dementia Conversations,” and Rick has served as a resource for classes, events and programs for people with a diagnosis.

“Rick and Traci’s firsthand experience enables them to connect with others in a compassionate and meaningful way,” said Ralph Patrick, regional director for the Alzheimer’s Association office in the Greater Boulder Region. “For me, they’re not just people who’ve been clients, but they’re people with whom I’ve formed a close connection and friendship to further the cause of helping people with dementia.”

Leading fundraisers

In addition, Rick and Traci formed a team for the 2017 Boulder Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and emerged as the leading fundraising team for the year in Boulder, engaging 35 of their friends and family members to raise a Walk-leading $9,520, which they aim to top in 2018.

“Many people don’t realize that the Alzheimer’s Association doesn’t just provide free services to families like ours, but it is a leading funder of research to find a cure,” said Traci. “That’s an important motivator for us.”

In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association is the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s disease research. Since 1982, the Alzheimer’s Association has invested more than $410 million in nearly 2,700 scientific investigations. Currently, the Association is investing over $110 million in nearly 400 best-of-field active projects in 19 countries.

That role of helping find a cure has provided Rick with some added incentive to get involved.

“The Walk (to End Alzheimer’s) gave me purpose,” said Rick. “It gave me a reason to get going in the morning.”

It also reengaged him with an extensive, international network of friends. In his youth, Rick was part of the Up with People, an international touring group that blends music and social action. He has reached out to all of his friends from that program, along with coworkers from his years of living in Washington, D.C., to inform them of his diagnosis and involve the local ones in his Walk team, dubbed True Grit by Rick.

The origins of True Grit

Rick’s sister, Shane, helped get the team organized and committed to being there even though it overlapped with her 50th birthday. When she asked her brother what they should call the team, he replied “True Grit,” giving it a name that came with multiple meanings.

When Rick was a lad of 10, the blockbuster Western movie “True Grit” starring John Wayne was filmed near where Rick’s family lived in western Colorado. He was tapped to help groom the movie star’s horse each day.

The other meaning relates to Rick’s approach to Alzheimer’s.

“We’re going to get through it – no matter what,” he says without ounce of doubt. “It means you are going to finish your job.”

Advice to those who follow

Having lived through the bomb blast of the diagnosis more than a year ago, Rick and Traci are now able to reflect on the changes that Alzheimer’s disease has brought to their lives and offer thoughts to other families facing the same challenge.

“Patience,” said Rick. “You need to be patient with yourself, and with others who are finding out about your diagnosis.”

Traci offered a similarly thoughtful approach.

“If there is a blessing to this, it’s that you receive notice so you can make the most of your time,” she said. “You realize that moments are precious. When you first receive the diagnosis, you worry about whether you have three months or six months or a year. The reality is that you have time to make new magic moments.”

With that philosophy in mind, Rick knows his job is to get the better of Yellow Jell-O. His goal is to survive…to enjoy his grandchildren and take that trip to Paris. And to make True Grit one of the biggest Walk teams in the country. (Click here to join or support True Grit.)

And Traci is standing side-by-side with him.

“We want to make the best of what we’ve got,” said Traci. “Whatever we have is a gift.”

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(*Rick was ultimately diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia usually considered an atypical variant of Alzheimer’s disease)

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