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You'll want to remember 'Dancing with Stars,' Hagerstown style

January 07, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Memory is a curious thing, and perhaps one of our most underappreciated faculties. Disease can ravage it, familiarities can jump-start it and often it comes and goes as it pleases with no available corrective device, such as glasses or hearing aids.

Without memory, there is no context to life, just the moment at hand. That's a frightening place to be, but ultimately it can be more of a sad place to be. Imagine talking to your wife and asking why she hasn't come to see you in so long - when in fact she's been there every day of the week for months.

Alzheimer's may also be the one disease that can affect loved ones as acutely as the person who is afflicted. The pain of spending one's life with a person, and then seeing recollection of that life erased, probably is all too easy to imagine.

It's a disturbing thought to say the least, and good reason to support an interesting fundraiser Feb. 17, to be held at the Fountain Head Country Club, beginning at 7 p.m.

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I say interesting, because even if you do not care about finding cures, or are cavalier enough to believe that Alzheimer's will never crash the mental hard drive of you or anyone you love, this will be worth tuning in for.

At least it will be if you have ever wanted to witness, say, Art Callaham dancing the tango, or swing dancing performed by Bernadette Wagner.

Tickets to the 4th Annual Forget-Me-Not gala - which is an event that will be patterned after the television show "Dancing With the Stars" - are $50. But if watching seven of Hagerstown's most public couples hopping around the dance floor isn't worth four times that, I'm a giraffe.

And it's something you will want to remember, which makes a cure all the more crucial.

The "Dancing With the Stars" idea, which was Wagner's idea and has since spread to the rest of the state with three similar galas in the works, has several salient tie-ins, according to Mary Ellen Mitchell, development coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association in Frederick and Washington counties.

It's exercise - "What's good for the heart is also good for the brain," Mitchell said - it's socialization and the steps and coordination involved use employ multiple brain functions at once, something equivalent to mental push-ups.

But for the people with Alzheimer's who may be in attendance, there is something more: Familiarity. Something as simple as a dance may reach back in the mental archives and trigger a happy response.

Mitchell tells the story of a woman married to an Alzheimer's sufferer who, by chance, took her husband out into the yard to rake leaves. Not only was the exercise good, but the familiar activity actually brought back pleasant memories; they were able to laugh and have fun.

"It was a real familiar task for him, and he felt like he was making a contribution," Mitchell said. "His wife said, 'heaven help me, but the next day I dumped all the leaves back on the ground and we did it again.' It's not about the repetition, it's about giving the person a good day."

Alzheimer's affects 2,600 people in Washington County, a figure that is likely low due to spotty diagnoses. But as the disease is more widely recognized for what it is, so too is the awareness that behavior in younger years can decrease the risk.

"Research points in the direction that the choices we make affect us later in life," Mitchell said.

That means exercise, nutrition and staying mentally active. Those crossword puzzles are more than a simple diversion. And you're not doing it just for yourself, because the Alzheimer's Association calculates that for every person who contracts the disease, four more people are significantly impacted by the emotional trauma.

And while on the topic of emotional trauma, it is important to point out that each of the celebrity couples next month will be required to complete four dances, swing, tango, waltz and meringue, which, if I'm reading the description right, is probably a commodity that should have stuck to pie. I wish the contestants luck with this one.

It should be an entertaining evening, especially if - and I am not necessarily trying to give anyone any ideas here - a mosh pit breaks out.

The audience will vote for the winning couple with their dollars, and if you are so inclined, you can cast these financial votes before the dancers even take the floor.

"We're encouraging the dancers to be as creative as possible," Mitchell said. "I'm hoping someone will dance a tango with a rose in their teeth. And I'm hoping it's Art Callaham."

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