MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The majority of people living with Alzheimer’s disease are 65 or older, but about 200,000 Americans are living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

Jerry Parks is one of them. His wife, Karen Parks, said Alzheimer’s is a family disease, one their family has been living with for nearly two decades. WCCO’s Erin Hassanzadeh spent the day with the Parks to talk about their 20-year journey with Alzheimer’s and the tough decisions still ahead.

“How did we meet Jer? Was it Wisconsin? Nope, you went to Stout. We met after you went to college do you remember how?”

Moments like this are nothing new for Karen and Jerry. Still, they can sting.

“Alzheimer’s kind of robs you of lots of things,” Karen said.

Her husband Jerry’s symptoms started nearly 20 years ago. He was 50 at the time, at the height of his career with four teenagers still at home.

“Jerry would be so convincing and I would say, ‘Jer, you should have told me that.’ And he would say, ‘Well I did tell you that.’ And he would go, ‘I know I told you, I remember telling you it.’ And it was like, ‘Well one of us is not remembering well,” Karen said. “Life went on.”

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Jerry’s younger-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis wouldn’t come until 2006. By then, he had been fired at his job as a construction company vice president, forcing Karen to go back to work and setting their family on a path they haven’t wavered from since.

“Jerry went home that day and he told me that he shed a few tears but then decided that we needed to make a difference,” Karen said. “At that point and we just started a new journey.”

From traveling to Washington D.C. to lobby for research funding and a national plan to joining drug trials at the Mayo Clinic and serving on a national panel, the progression of Jerry’s disease strengthened the Parks’ family commitment.

“Jerry was on a very slow progression,” Karen said.

Slow enough for Jerry to meet all 11 of his grandchildren.

After several years on the journey, it was time to find a place where Jerry would go when Karen could no longer care for him. Their daily routine now includes a drive two miles down the road to visit what will become Jerry’s new home.

“It was kind of the next step to take,” Karen said.

(credit: CBS)

Parks Place, the memory care home, has the cozy touches Karen wants, with the safety features and stimulating activities Jerry and others like him need, like a motion detector.

“We wanted the family to feel comfortable and want to spend time with their loved one,” said Parks.

Parks’ Place is the perfect place for Jerry because it was created for him by his wife.

“Building Parks’ Place is a culmination of our whole journey,” Karen said.

Investors, bank loans and family loans made Karen’s dream possible. What she lacks in medical credentials, she makes up for in love and painful personal experience.

Parks’ Place, which has room for 30 people, opened this fall, but Jerry doesn’t live there yet. Though Karen senses the time is near.

“I don’t know that you’re ever ready. It’s a thing that caregivers struggle with, it’s a very hard decision,” Karen said. “Everybody who has gone through it has said you’ll know when the time comes.”

Before that time comes, Karen and Jerry will take one last trip, adding to their long list of travels since diagnosis. And when the time comes, Karen can know she did everything she could to create a place that’s just right for her Jerry.

“There is life after diagnosis and we need to embrace the families and let them know that they still matter,” Karen said.

Erin Hassanzadeh

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