Every time NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens steps onto the football field, his mind turns to the woman he credits with getting him there: his grandmother. She took him in when he was a young boy and raised him. What breaks his heart is that she will never know how far he's come.
Alice Black was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 14 years ago, during Owens' first NFL season. Now, she no longer knows her grandson. "The disease has robbed her of her memories," says Owens, who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals and is considered one of the best wide receivers of all time. "It's like she is dying a slow death."
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When Sue Dietz noticed her mother's dementia worsening, she began spending
every day at her parents' house near Pittsburgh — making sure her mom was
eating properly and taking medications. But the schedule became too much when
Dietz's daughter in North Carolina had a baby. "It wasn't fair to my
daughter that I couldn't be with her when she needed me, too," says Dietz,
November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. For Owens, 36, bringing attention to the disease is a cause to which he has lent his celebrity since his grandmother was diagnosed in 1996. "Every team I have played for knew I did charity work," says Owens, who has participated in numerous Memory Walks to raise money for Alzheimer's care and research and has appeared in public service announcements. In 2003, he testified before Congress in an effort to increase federal funding for Alzheimer's research.
Owens did not know much about the disease at first, but working with the Alzheimer's Association and doing research changed that. And over time, those efforts helped him understand and accept what was happening. "Learning to deal with it was a gradual process," Owens says. "I had to come to grips with the fact that she was not going to get better."
Alzheimer's by the Numbers
More than 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's disease, most of them age 65 or older. That number is expected to increase dramatically as more baby boomers enter prime Alzheimer's territory. The National Institute on Aging says the number of Americans 65 and older will double within the next 25 years. The disease is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.
Owens' grandmother is now 76 and lives in an Alabama nursing home. "She's in a state where she can't really communicate," says Owens. That's the saddest part for him, because there is so much he would like to share with her and thank her for.
"I would love to have her experience what I have achieved," Owens says. "Here is someone I love dearly, who motivated me, who made me a better man, but she cannot see the man I've become."
Interview, Terrell Owens, August, 2010.
The Alzheimer's Association: "Alzheimer's Facts and Figures."
National Institute of Aging: "Alzheimer's Disease: A Growing National Problem."
The Alzheimer's Association: "Stages of Alzheimer's."
News release, Senator Tom Harkin's office.