Martin J. Walsh walked in the door to visit his grandmother at her Irish farmhouse, and she did not know who he was.
Mary Ann O’Malley did not remember her own daughter, either. By the time she had reached her early 80s, O’Malley had forgotten much of what she once knew intimately.
“We would walk in the house,” Walsh said in an interview, “and she would ask who we were.”
Memories of his late grandmother in the stranglehold of Alzheimer’s disease and of family members exhausted by caring for her, have inspired Boston’s new mayor to make improving services for people with Alzheimer’s and their families among his earliest missions in office.
While Walsh’s struggles with cancer as a child and alcoholism as a young man became well known during the campaign, his family’s history with Alzheimer’s was news to many, who learned of it during his inaugural speech Monday.
“For me, this is personal,” Walsh said in his inaugural address. “My grandmother and our family suffered from this disease.”
Walsh said in the speech that he would release a “blueprint for action for the city, to raise awareness through education and outreach, and to connect those with the disease to the resources they need.”
In an interview later in the week, Walsh pledged that the blueprint would not collect dust at City Hall. Although no date has been set for releasing the plan, Walsh said in the interview that he is committed to launching its recommendations early in his administration.
Already, the outlines of the initiative are emerging, with plans for better coordination of city services, help for families left weary by caring for relatives stricken with Alzheimer’s, and training for workers at senior housing centers.
City officials estimate that at least 7,000 Bostonians have Alzheimer’s, and as many as half of them may not yet be diagnosed. The impact on their families extends the illness’s reach further still.
On the campaign trail, questions about services for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia came up frequently during Walsh’s visits to senior centers and elderly housing complexes, he said. Often, those seeking information were caregivers and elderly housing managers.
After the November election, as Walsh began meeting with officials in the outgoing administration of Thomas M. Menino, he learned of an Alzheimer’s action blueprint that Menino’s team had started working on in the waning months of his term, but that had been put on hold.
“I said I would love to take that and go with it,” Walsh said. “And we started talking about it.”
Walsh brings to the discussion firsthand experience with the toll the disease can exact on families.
As Alzheimer's tightened its grip on Walsh’s grandmother, she became more childlike, alarming the family by wandering off if not constantly watched.
“I remember one day in Ireland, I ran upstairs for a moment and yelled to my mom to keep an eye on her, and she was off, walking down the road,” Walsh said.
That’s the sort of experience a national initiative underway aims to prevent. Walsh mentioned the Alzheimer’s Early Detection Alliance in his inaugural speech, promising to make the City of Boston a member. The early detection initiative, started by the national Alzheimer’s Association, helps employers provide information about the disease, as well as resources for care and counseling, to their workers, usually through employee assistance programs or human resources office.
Massachusetts became the first state government to join the program in September when the Patrick administration announced it was signing up to boost Alzheimer’s services for state employees.
The City of Boston, with its 17,000 employees, would become the first major US city to join, said the Alzheimer’s Association.
“We are thrilled that we have a mayor of a major US city, and the largest in New England, making a statement that Alzheimer’s disease is a critical issue, and he, as mayor, wants to address this for residents of Boston,” said James Wessler, president of the Alzheimer’s Association of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The early detection alliance probably would include “lunch and learn” sessions for city employees; Alzheimer’s Association specialists would come to workplaces to teach employees warning signs and other aspects of the disease.
Walsh’s blueprint for action would have a wider sweep. It includes a plan to better coordinate city hotlines so that residents could more easily find information about services for Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
As part of that initiative, Walsh’s team is studying how it might ramp up respite services for beleaguered family caregivers, using existing programs that recruit and train volunteers, age 55 and over, to work with people in the community.
The plan probably will include training for workers in senior housing complexes to help them better understand and manage incidents with residents who have dementia, who often wander off or become agitated, so that Alzheimer’s patients might be able to stay in the community longer.
Walsh’s grandmother died seven years ago, but she lingered, severely incapacitated, for years before that.
“You lose the person so early,” Walsh said. “You lose the ability to communicate with them.”
His hope with the blueprint for action is to ease the journey for other families.
“This is something that can really help improve the quality of people’s lives,” he said. “To help them, in some cases, cope, and move forward.”