Girls on the Gridiron – Taking the Fight Against Alzheimer’s to the Field

It is officially fall and fall means football season – the fans, cheerleaders, Friday night lights, afternoon tailgaters, and Monday Night Football.  When we think of football – we think of the gladiators of the gridiron.  However, one of the best football games this season is being played by women across the country – and they are playing to win the battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

Two Sisters, One Dad and a Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s

Sara Allen Abbott and her sister, Kate Allen Stukenberg, are two beautiful brunettes born and bred in Texas.  Their love of football is both geographically influenced (what Texan doesn’t love football?) but also a family affair.  Their mother started the Powder Puff football game at the girls’ high school to help raise funds for an after-prom program.  Their father, Joe, had always been a football fan cheering on his favorite team, the Houston Oilers and taking both daughters to games at the Astrodome from a young age.  Both sisters also recall fond memories of how their dad indoctrinated his daughters into “game day” by taking his girls to University of Texas games to cheer on the Longhorns, where both women are now alumnae.

In 2005, Sara and Kate’s dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  He was only 63 years old, although Kate remembers there were small signs of the disease several years earlier.

Sara on her wedding day with dad Joe

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates 5.4 million Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease today – in fact, every 68 seconds someone develops this disease.  What is perhaps a larger concern are the studies showing 50 percent of those living with Alzheimer’s are undiagnosed.   The Alzheimer’s Association believes

early detection of Alzheimer’s disease can help families plan ahead for what can be a long caregiving journey.  They know families, like the Allens, can be impacted emotionally and financially, so they have created the Early Detection Campaign and the 10 Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer ’s disease.

And, although it was Sara and Kate’s dad who developed the disease, The Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s released last year from the Alzheimer’s Association shows 10 million American women are touched by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.  Of the more than 5 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, two-thirds are women.  In addition, 6.7 million women represent 60 percent of the family caregivers of those living with the disease.

After his diagnosis, Kate moved back to Texas from New York City and did not work for eight months so she could just hang out with her dad.  She feels this period of her life truly taught her about patience.  Although he was physically in good shape, Kate felt so much of him was missing – although she said “the core of him was still there.”

She told me, “People need to understand that being a caregiver doesn’t necessarily mean you’re changing diapers or feeding someone.  It can just be sharing time and for someone with Alzheimer’s, maybe listening to a story they feel they’re telling for the first time but you’ve heard quite a few times already.”

During this period, Sara was living in Washington, D.C. and felt the typical helplessness of being a long-distance caregiver, something 8 million Americans are doing today.  At one point she said she was thinking of moving home but her dad said, “You can come back, but you being here is not going to cure me.  Stay in Washington and do your best.”

It was that conversation she believes inspired her to do something to fight Alzheimer’s disease.

Blondes v. Brunettes® – Let the Games Begin

The age-old hair color competition (blonde or brunette?) helped fuel Sara’s idea to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association through a very non-traditional event.  In 2005, Sara approached the Alzheimer’s Association with the idea of tackling Alzheimer’s in a new venue – on the football field with all female players.    The first flag football game, Blondes vs. Brunettes®, was played in Washington, D.C. and a winning event was born.

Blondes vs. Brunettes creator Sara Allen Abbott (in burgundy coat) at Washington DC game

It took Sara’s sister, Kate, only six months to take a page out of Sara’s playbook and host her own Blondes vs. Brunettes® game in her Houston community.  In its seven-year history, the Blondes vs. Brunettes® games have raised over $3 million for Alzheimer’s research and programs.  The events now span from coast-to-coast, with more than 25 cities set to host a game in 2013. To find local events this fall, visit the Alzheimer’s Association site (www.alz.org).

And, to prove they are democratic, Sara and Kate have invited men to serve as coaches, umpires, announcers and even cheerleaders.

Kate Allen Stukenberg (second from right in red) at Houston Blondes vs. Brunettes game

Caregiving Game Changers

When I asked the sisters about their motivation for starting their fabulous female football games, Sara said, “There were three reasons.  First, my dad and I had a great love of football and wonderful memories attending games together.  Second, the fitness aspects promote health and wellness and are another way to ‘maintain your brain.’  Third, we knew in order to be successful it needed to be fun and football is a game you can enjoy on the field or from the sidelines.”

Kate believes you don’t have to love football to love the game, “I still have NO idea what a flag means.  I understand touchdowns but that’s about it.  I definitely know how to enjoy the social aspects of the game.  When Sara started it in D.C., I said ‘We have to do this in Texas.’”

When I asked the sisters what they felt their dad would say about their fund-raising and awareness-raising success, they both replied he would be proud but then they shine the spotlight back on their beloved dad.

Sara said, “He was constantly telling us we could and would do amazing things.”

Kate replied she runs into people all the time who tell her how much he wanted to help people, what a character he was and what a difference he made.

Now it’s the sisters making a difference.  And, what a beautiful legacy of their dad that his girls are doing “amazing things” by honoring his love for the game.

 

 

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