When Kathy Sitker was asked to become executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Washington, she hesitated.
She didn’t have previous experience running a nonprofit, even if she had served on the Bellingham-based organization’s board of directors for three years and also as Washington state’s long-term care ombudsman. Nor did she have the education she felt she needed.
But she did have heartbreaking, first-hand knowledge: Her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and her father with Alzheimer’s disease. Both cause dementia.
Her father died in 2003. Her mother in 2007.
So despite Sitker’s concerns about her qualifications, the society told her: “We don’t care. You have a heart. You were in the trenches with your parents.”
The small nonprofit’s mission is to educate people about dementia-related diseases, and to offer support and resources to families and friends of those affected with Alzheimer’s — much-needed help for people struggling to care for their loved ones, who are disappearing before their eyes as the diseases take over.
“The support we give to a family member, to a spouse, to a child of someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s is so important,” says Sitker, who has been the head of the society for a little over two years. “Caring for somebody with Alzheimer’s, they call it a 36-hour day. You’re constantly on guard. You’re constantly watching them. You have to be so patient.”
Before her stint as head of the society, Sitker likely was best known as the previous and longtime owner of Diego’s Mexican Grill in Bellingham.
Sitker is also part of the state Alzheimer’s Disease Working Group, which is crafting a state plan to respond to a growing number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
About 110,000 state residents have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. That number is expected to grow to 150,000 by 2025, according to the working group.
Sitker says demand has grown for the society’s programs and services, which are free.
“People do need us,” the 60-year-old Bellingham resident says. “Most of the time people are calling because they need help. They don’t know what to do.”
To help, the society offers support groups in parts of Whatcom County for caregivers and those experiencing early memory loss. It also offers memory screenings and Project Lifesaver, which uses radio frequencies to track people with brain ailments who are missing. There also is the Alzheimer’s Cafe, a chance for those who are still able to get out and socialize with their family and friends.
Taken together, the groups provide a place for people to be with others who are going through what they’re going through, to cry together, to come out of their shells, to hold each other up, to laugh together.
Overseeing the society’s work is Sitker, who does so with family in mind.
“I do what I do in honor of my parents,” she says.