Carrying Forward the Essence of Mom and Dad

“Lander and Dot were absolutely two people who instilled in me that you always work in your community,” begins their son Mark Bumgarner, executive director of Catawba County’s United Way. “You keep doing your work to make things better for everybody.” Mark shares that growing up he tagged along with his dad who helped with Special Olympics, as well as, his mom who was involved with many different community projects. “So in my mind at the time I’m thinking, ‘Were they not able to find a babysitter?’, he laughs. “What I realized as I’ve grown up; however, is that they were intentional. They wanted me to see and understand that you find a place to work in your community and that you put your passion into it.” 

Upon completing undergraduate school, Mark spent four years working for a hospital as a social worker on an eating disorders unit, psychiatric unit and chronic pain unit. He believes it was a great experience as it really gave him a unique world view and very much aligned with his value system. Upon progressing in his career, Mark spent 20 years with the Department of Social Services (DSS) where he first experienced Alzheimer’s disease in a professional sense. His job focused on adult protective services and guardianship; therefore, Mark worked with a lot of individuals who were living with a cognitive impairment.    

During Mark’s time at DSS, his father, Lander, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000 and lived with it for seventeen years. Mark readily admits that one is never truly prepared to hear this type of diagnosis and that certainly dealing with it clinically is incredibly different from dealing with it personally. Mark believes that his career background did offer him a sense of somehow they’d “muddle through this.” 

His dad’s journey began with very simple things such as forgetting to take his medication. Then an hour or two after eating lunch he’d ask when were they having lunch? His mom would of course reply that they had just eaten lunch a couple of hours earlier, and he would say “Oh, that’s right.” Mark shares that his dad was very good at masking his memory loss with great social behavior.  Everyone in the community knew Lander, liked him and he talked to everybody.  Then there would be times when Lander and Mark would see someone he had not seen in several years, they would chat and then they’d walk away.  Mark’s dad would ask him who that was that they were talking with. Upon receiving Lander’s diagnosis,  Mark remembers his mom questioning it. How could they be right? Perhaps there’s been a mistake?  She was experiencing the denial stage of grief. While Mark wanted to comfort her and support her skepticism, his professional knowledge tore at him to repeatedly say to her, “Mom, I think they may be right.”  

After spending 20 years at (DSS) and having no intentions of leaving, Mark had the opportunity to become the executive director of Adult Life Programs that provided adult day health services to disabled adults. “I’m like, Wow! This is kind of cool!” exclaims Mark. “I began to look at my ability to work and impact the community at a larger level than one on one services.”  Not only did Mark manage operations at a basic clinical level, but he also began working with state and national associations in Washington, D.C. to discuss legislation with the respective legislators and how it impacted their constituents. Mark readily admits that he’s a person that doesn’t believe there are a lot of coincidences in this world. He thinks that things happen the way they’re meant to be, and whatever that is, “karma, god, goddess, the universe,” because the Alzheimer’s Association local chapter office was housed in his business offices. There was an immediate connection and Mark has been involved with the Association for the 12 years since. 

“Sometimes I think we stumble into grace and fall into our purpose, and this was absolutely one of those times for me,” asserts Mark. “My dad’s disease was progressing and things were changing.” Mark believes what’s most insidious about Alzheimer’s is that it isolates everybody, the family caregivers, other friends, the person with the disease. Mark remembers the times he felt so alone himself and those times when he’d see the look on his mom’s face – how lonely she appeared at the realization that her husband was slipping away.  Mark’s connection to the Alzheimer’s Association was invaluable, and they offered him an opportunity to work with them. What Mark realized was the Association provided an effective way for him to feel like he was fighting back a little bit against the disease. His dad’s condition further progressed, and they had twenty-four hour at home care.  Mark recalls one Saturday morning he received a call from the caregiver that his dad had escaped the safety gates on the house deck and could not be found. They were living in Maiden, N.C., and neighbors were driving around in their golf carts along with the police looking for him. According to Mark the situation was kind of sweet and hysterical in some ways. His dad had tripped and fallen across the railroad tracks a few blocks from the house. The police helped him get up and Mark shared that his dad always had a wicked sense of humor. Upon Mark reaching his dad, Lander shared, “My buddies and I were out playing golf, and they kicked me out of my house!” Mark shared that in that moment there was this little glimpse of his ‘real dad’ that came through on probably the most tragic day of Mark’s life. 

No two people are the same in their Alzheimer’s trajectory. During Lander’s 17 year journey, 14 of those years were slow progressing and the last three years seemed as if they moved at warp speed. It was very tough for Mark to see how his dad’s disease negatively impacted his mom. While Mark had power of attorney for his dad, she assumed the primary caregiver role for as long as she was able. Battling health issues of her own, she knew she needed help.  His mom was devastated when he was no longer able to live at home. Her health deteriorated quickly because of her husband’s disease, and she passed away just three years later. Mark shares that as he has gotten further along in his cycle of grief, how he identifies his parents has very little to do with his dad’s illness anymore, which he believes is a good thing. He readily admits that it was awful losing his parents and he misses them every day. But at the same time, something changed in him and he credits the Alzheimer’s Association for helping him figure his way out and the impact that it made on his family. “What I’m carrying forward is the essence of my mom and my dad and the impact of that disease.”

Mark considers it an honor to work with the Alzheimer’s Association and continue to participate in the upcoming Unifour Walk on October 29.  “I know it’s a fundraising event, and I don’t discount that but the thing that always just makes my throat catch and offer up a little prayer of hello to Mom and Dad wherever they are at the Walk is that sense of solidarity.” Mark believes the promise garden flowers tell a compelling story, and there’s beauty when you see hundreds of people carrying them and knowing what the respective colors mean. Mark emphasizes the fact that while we don’t know our fellow walkers’ journeys, we know that “we understand theirs and they understand ours” and that there’s real power in that. Mark goes on to share that not only is it spiritually moving but vital in that the Walks combat this disease of isolation. They give us a sense of hope and people leave those Walks inspired and full of the stuff that gets you in the feels.   

Mark believes that while the Association is laser focused on research, as it should be to find the cure, it also provides the people connectivity and that’s where the magic is going to happen. “Don’t get me wrong as much as I admire and love you guys,” Marks says in closing, “I’m still holding out hope in my lifetime. Nothing will make me happier than to help you find another job!”

LIKE MARK, WE ALL HAVE A REASON TO FIGHT FOR A WORLD WITHOUT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Join your local Walk to End Alzheimer’s today as an individual, team, or sponsor.

The Alzheimer’s Association hosts 17 walks across North Carolina. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Since 1989, the Alzheimer’s Association® mobilized millions of Americans in the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk®; now the Alzheimer’s Association is continuing to lead the way with Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Together, we can end Alzheimer’s. Your health and safety are our top priorities. We will continue to closely monitor CDC, state and local guidelines to ensure Walk events adhere to the latest recommendations.

Alamance County9/24/2022
Guilford County10/15/2022
Henderson County9/24/2022
Iredell County9/24/22
Mount Airy09/10/2022
New Bern10/22/2022
Unifour (formerly Hickory)10/29/2022
Triangle (Raleigh-Durham)10/15/22
Moore County11/12/2022

Alzheimer’s isn’t stopping and neither are we.

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