Alzheimer’s — to those without an understanding of the disease — conjures up visions of elderly people in a nursing homes unable to care for themselves. However, the general public doesn’t realize that the person in line next to them at the grocery store might be fighting the invisible foe that has inflicted more than 36 million worldwide.
Roughly 12 million people worldwide have mild Alzheimer’s or related dementia. That means that at a minimum, there are 12 million neighbors, friends and family members with Alzheimer’s (1.7 million in the U.S.) who are not in a nursing home.
In fact, they are leading active lives by participating in society and having adventures.
Michael Ellenbogen is such a person. After more than a decade of having symptoms, Ellenbogen was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at 49. He is one of an estimated 1.4 million people worldwide who have been diagnosed before 65.
Skydiving with Alzheimer’s
People who don’t understand Alzheimer’s, or who don’t know Ellenbogen, might be surprised to hear that after receiving the diagnosis, he parachuted from an airplane at 12,500 feet. Ellenbogen, like others in his situation, was “going around and trying to figure out [his] bucket list” when he came across a video of a skydiver with dementia. He jokes that he was happy to learn that you can skydive tandem, because “If I was to try and do it on my own, I might forget to pull the chute,” he said with a chuckle.
While Ellenbogen may not remember some things, such as his fear of heights (which he was reminded of by his neighbor), it’s quite obvious from our discussion that he remembers his skydiving adventure with a good deal of clarity. In fact, he recalls that after looking at the altimeter on his watch and realizing he was at 10,000 feet he thought, “Oh, wow, maybe this wasn’t the right move.”
That anxiety didn’t last long, because within a few seconds he and his skydiving instructor partner reached the desired altitude of 12,500 feet, and the instructor, strapped to Ellenbogen, jumped from the plane without hesitation.
This instructor, as well as the skydiving company, was aware of the dementia because Ellenbogen says he “made them aware clearly, that hey, you can’t count on me.” This two-way interaction helped create a dementia-friendly skydiving adventure for Ellenbogen. He went on to add, “They made me feel really comfortable that they would do what was necessary.”
‘Life Is Too Precious’
As Alzheimer’s awareness grows and more businesses become sensitive to the challenges a person with dementia faces, people with Alzheimer’s will be able to participate more comfortably in a wider range of activities. These activities don’t have to be as extreme as skydiving or driving a Lamborghini (Ellenbogen has this on his bucket list as well), but as Ellenbogen says, “It’s so important for people to live life to its fullest” because “life is too short.”
We can all learn from Ellenbogen when he talks about how we all have fancy items that we only wear on special occasions. “Life is too precious, so start wearing them now,” he says.
Just because a person has been diagnosed with an illness doesn’t mean they should stop being active or avoid contact with other people. On the contrary, the best way to fight back is by maintaining a purpose — by staying active and social.
Ellenbogen will tell you to not put limitations on yourself. There are people out there who will help you do things you don’t think you can do.
Watch below to see videos of Ellenbogen skydiving and my full interview with him.
This video originally appeared on Together In This.
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