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US Sen Jay Rockefeller honored for Alzheimer’s advocacy

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More than 10 years after its first awards luncheon that honored U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for his commitment to fight against Alzheimer’s disease, the West Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association again awarded the retiring politician.

The annual “Thanks for the Memories Luncheon” began presenting the “Rockefeller Award” after the first was given to Rockefeller in 2001.

During the 2014 luncheon May 29, Rockefeller addressed the crowd for about 15 minutes, talking about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease. After her death, Rockefeller and his sisters founded the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute in Morgantown. The research institute is dedicated to discoveries about how to diagnose, treat and repair memory damage caused by disease and degeneration.

The first Sylvia Watkins Walk to End Alzheimer’s Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to Rachel Torlone of Huntington during the luncheon as well.

“It’ such a dreadful disease,” Rockefeller said of Alzheimer’s. “It leaves scars, and it leaves wounds.

“The wounds eventually heal, but the scars don’t. Nor should they, because it’s part of what drives you. Passion isn’t just handed to you at birth, it’s handed to you by the experiences you have, and good passion is often motivated by a bad experience.”

Rockefeller said he continues to speak so often of his arrival to West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer “because it’s still true,” and revealed that he “wrote endless diaries,” during his time in Emmons, but he couldn’t bring himself to read them until this past summer.

“People there thought their lives had been pre-ordained for something bad,” Rockefeller said.

Laurel Kirksey, executive director of the West Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association said the group was “pleased” to honor Rockefeller’s legacy of leadership.

“Throughout Sen. Rockefeller’s nearly half-century of dedicated service to the people of West Virginia, he has been an exemplary ally in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

Rockefeller said his father-in-law also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and even though his family had a lot of resources to provide him and his own mother with in-home care, that situation is not common.

“She just disappeared,” he said of his mother. “It’s what happens to everybody.

“Let there be no mistake: The single overriding goal of the Alzheimer’s Association and BRNI, the whole deal, is to try to find a cure. It’s out there.”

Rockefeller said he often thinks of how a cure to polio took time, but when it arrived, “the world changed.”

Rockefeller said people still don’t like to discuss Alzheimer’s disease, and his father never told his children their mother had the disease, but Rockefeller’s chauffeur broke the news.

“I choose to believe my mother’s death was not in vain,” he said, explaining why he founded BRNI. “It’s all driven by the guiding ideas simply worth fighting for.

“That ours is a cause we can win and will win in time.”

Rockefeller also expressed his gratitude for the “angels among us who care for those who are afflicted” with the disease.

“I’m very thankful — incredibly grateful — for the Alzheimer’s foundation,” he said.

Rockefeller said more than 30,000 West Virginians have been diagnosed with the disease, and the state is projected to have 45,000 people with Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2025.

“Yes, our scars will always be with us, but we fight on in memory of those who have lost the battle,” he said.