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Remembering Mom and Dad

Sarah Carpenter knows what it's like to miss someone even before they're gone.

That's what Alzheimer's disease does, it steals the things we love most about a person - our mother's pep talks, our father's quirky jokes - and leaves behind a physical shell.

Carpenter, a 40-year-old mother of two from Gresham, had already lost her grandmother and father to this disease. On Thursday, Sept. 28, she lost her mother too.

'I feel like I've already grieved for her, like I've been grieving for four years,' Carpenter said Thursday. She had come to a local café that day to talk about her participation in the 2006 Portland Memory Walk.

Instead, the talk drifted to Carpenter's memories of her parents, both longtime Gresham residents.

Disease claims both parents

In 2002, only a few years after her grandmother died from Alzheimer's disease, Carpenter's then-71-year-old mother, Joanne Martinson, started acting very odd.

Normally peaceful and calm, Joanne became easily irritated by her young grandsons and frustrated by daily life.

When her mother's speech started to fade, Carpenter, a medical assistant at Kaiser, realized something was very wrong.

'She would look at everyday things, like a pen, and she would know, in her mind, that it was something to write with, but she couldn't put words to it,' Carpenter explains. 'It's a condition called aphasia.'

The disease took its toll on Carpenter and her four older brothers. They watched helplessly as their mother withdrew socially, stopped eating and refused to bathe or take care of her physical appearance.

Pictures of a young Joanne show a much different woman - an Oregon State University sorority girl full of life, a gifted artist and musician, and a vibrant young mother of four boys under the age of 5.

Carpenter urged her father to seek help for her, but the couple had spent 46 years in their Gresham home and the thought of putting his wife, Joanne, in a nursing home pained Kenneth Martinson.

Finally, Joanne's illness progressed to a point where she could no longer stay home without hurting herself or someone else. One year after Joanne moved into Encore Senior Village, Kenneth Martinson exhibited some strange behavior.

'One of my most vivid memories is of my dad changing a doorknob,' Carpenter says. 'He had always been very handy, but there he was, trying to change this doorknob, and it took him hours. Things that had come easily became a struggle for him.'

As a medical assistant, and the child of a parent with Alzheimer's, Carpenter could not ignore her father's symptoms. Still, she was in disbelief.

'It's not usual for both parents to have it,' she says. 'And when my dad started showing symptoms of it I was scared. I couldn't believe this was happening.'

Kenneth Martinson moved to Encore a little more than one year after his wife. He died in April of this year. Joanne died five months later.

Walking for a Cure

On Sunday, Sept. 30, Carpenter, her husband, Rob, and their two sons, Eric, 17, and Austen, 7, will walk in the 2006 Portland Memory Walk for Alzheimer's.

Carpenter, who has raised more than $1,300 for the walk in less than two weeks, urges more people to recognize the devastating affects Alzheimer's has on a community.

'When I used to do Race for the Cure, there were so many people that you could barely move,' Carpenter says. 'But there's never a big turnout for the Memory Walk … and this is a disease that affects 4.5 million people. As the baby boomers get older, this disease will affect more and more people.'

Carpenter knows Alzheimer's is an inheritable disease, so she worries about her own health. She tries to stave off the disease the best way she knows how - by keeping her mind stimulated and keeping socially active - but she is hopeful that a cure is on the horizon.

'There are medications that can slow the progress of the disease, so early detection is the best hope right now,' Carpenter says.

Sometimes she wonders what life would be like if her parents could have beaten Alzheimer's.

'I wish that my kids would have had more time to know their grandparents,' Carpenter says. 'I wonder, if they had both stayed healthy, what their relationship with their grandchildren would have been like.'