Why George Vradenburg of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s wants everyone to “Be Trish.”
As a writer for popular television comedies including “Designing Women” and “Family Ties,” Trish Vradenburg knew how to find creative inspiration in life’s difficulties. She applied the same skill to real life after her mother, Bea Lerner, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
First through a semi-autobiographical play and later through co-founding the nonprofit UsAgainstAlzheimer’s with her husband George, Vradenburg used her creativity and compassion to improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s. Sadly, on April 17 this year she passed away unexpectedly at age 70.
George Vradenburg carries on her legacy as chairman of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “Trish’s mother and her grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, so we started this together in 2010,” he says. “It was about 25 years after her mother had been diagnosed with the disease, and nothing seemed to be happening. We wanted to devote pretty much full time to trying to conquer Alzheimer’s.”
When her mother first began showing symptoms, Trish Vradenburg was living in Los Angeles writing for “Designing Women.” Her mother lived in New Jersey and they didn’t see each other often, so the extent of Lerner’s decline was not immediately apparent. But as the disease worsened, there was no mistaking that she needed help. She had gone from being a bright, active civic leader to someone with memory lapses and hallucinations. “Trish ended up commuting every other week back from LA to New Jersey to see her mother and to make sure she was okay,” George Vradenburg says. When the couple moved back east, the emotional and financial strain on the family became much more intense.
True to her creative spirit, Trish Vradenburg turned to writing to help her cope with the situation. She wrote a darkly comedic play, “Surviving Grace,” that closely mirrored what had happened in her own family. “The play was a way for her to resolve all of her issues with her mother,” George Vradenburg says. “It was almost therapeutic.” The play was produced at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and ran off Broadway at the Union Square Theater in New York City. Marilu Henner, Carol Burnett, and other celebrities have participated in readings of the play to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research.
In an effort to create a greater impact in the crusade against Alzheimer’s, the influential Vradenburgs also began volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association. Beginning in 2003, they chaired a high-profile gala every year to raise funds and awareness for the organization. In nine years they raised more than $9 million for the Association.
However, they were disappointed with the slow pace of progress toward a cure. “In 2010 we said, ‘You know, it’s not enough to do one night a year. This just isn’t satisfying our desire to really have an impact on creating a movement here.’ And so we started UsAgainstAlzheimer’s,” says Vradenburg.
The nonprofit aims to pressure global governments, the pharmaceutical industry, and scientists to work harder to produce effective methods of preventing and treating Alzheimer’s by 2025. As an independent nonprofit, UsAgainstAlzheimer’s is able to push hard for change across all sectors without fear of repercussions. “As Trish would say, ‘If industry gets mad at us, or government gets mad at us, or researchers get mad at us, what are they going to do, fire us?’” Vradenburg says. “They can’t fire us, so why don’t we demand change?”
With a mixture of frustration and optimism, Vradenburg carries on his wife’s legacy in continuing to push for greater effort across all sectors. “We’re learning a lot, and we’re learning a lot quickly,” he says. “I do think that we have a reasonable prospect of getting a means of prevention and treatment by 2025. But that does not mean it’s cured. I think we’re going to be in a world in which we’ll have some successful drugs but the drugs are only going to be partially effective and where we’re going to need high-quality care institutions for a very, very long time.”
Vradenburg urges memory care providers to take a leadership role in Alzheimer’s care beyond the confines of their own properties. For instance, he suggests that staff members could attend or host community events to educate people about Alzheimer’s. He also proposes the idea that senior living properties consider offering a fee-based in-home care management service, visiting Alzheimer’s patients at home once a week to guide their care and to educate caregivers about patient well-being, home safety, enrichment activities, and other issues.
As UsAgainstAlzheimer’s continues to press toward its goal, Vradenburg will ensure that his late wife’s legacy grows right along with it. “Trish is going to be part of this organization forever,” he says. He recently launched the “Be Trish” campaign, which urges everyone to follow her example of working for meaningful change and to therefore “Be Trish.” The campaign will include a “Be Trish” award and other initiatives.
“Trish was the light of my life,” Vradenburg says. “She was joyful, optimistic, a believer that ‘today’s dreams are tomorrow’s realities.’ She infused people around her with a sense of optimism and a sense of joy that we can solve this problem. This is not intractable. This is something we can do; we just have to get at it.”
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