On September 30 at 3 p.m. EST, puzzle fans across the United States will download what looks like a typical Sunday crossword from the Internet, except that it's anything but. It's the centerpiece of a national contest sponsored by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America to raise awareness of the wide-ranging effects of Alzheimer's disease.
The idea for such a contest grew out of events that happened in the early 1990s. My wife, Marie, and I had been living in Southern California and were planning a move to Oregon. Marie typically visited her parents in Florida every January, and it was the January 1993 visit that changed everything. Her father died suddenly during her visit, and Marie found herself the primary caregiver for her mother, who had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
So instead of relocating north, we moved east to Tampa, Florida, and faced the difficult day-to-day life of caring for Marie's mom, Jo. For the next three years Marie did everything she could to keep her mother as comfortable as possible, despite overwhelming circumstances.
And "comfortable" meant that putting Jo in a care home was out of the question, since she became extremely agitated whenever she was in "strange" surroundings. Even her own home sometimes frightened her. On one occasion Jo looked at us fearfully and insisted we let her out the back door -- she thought we were robbers. We followed her as she fled in short, determined steps around the block.
Another time Marie turned around to find her mother gone, along with the dog. After a frantic hour, a nearby dentist's office called Marie to say her mom was there. They had tracked Marie down using the Humane Society ID on the dog's collar.
Marie's mom also had a tendency to get up at 1 or 2 a.m., go into the kitchen, turn on all the burners and try to start cooking. One day, I woke up, walked into the kitchen and found Jo buttering the table. She also cut an electric fan cord with scissors while it was still plugged in.
We once got locked out of the house with Jo still inside and it took a half hour for her to understand what "lift the latch" meant.
With things happening at all hours, seven days a week, Marie felt that if she didn't find another set of helping hands, and quick, her own sanity would be at risk.
Most Alzheimer's caregivers have stories similar to these. What usually makes headlines are breakthroughs in research or million-dollar grants, and rightfully so. But after Marie's 1,000-day ordeal it was clear that the plight of Alzheimer's caregivers needed to be a priority as well.
I make crosswords for a living. My Sunday puzzle appears every week in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and 45 other papers. So in the early 1990s it was with great interest that I kept hearing crosswords mentioned almost every time Alzheimer's disease was discussed on radio or TV. According to the experts, mental exercise, such as solving crosswords, enhances brain health much the same way that physical exercise enhances body health. I even heard Phil Donahue mention crosswords while discussing Alzheimer's disease on his show. (I met Phil many years later and found out he's a longtime crossword fan.)
More recently, the importance of mental stimulation to boost brain power has been gaining greater attention, especially as the incidence of Alzheimer's disease continues to impact more of the nation's aging population. There's no cure for the brain disorder, so people are desperately searching for ways to help age successfully.
Here was my way to give back -- to use my skills as a puzzle creator to develop a contest that would generate media buzz about crosswords, Alzheimer's disease and caregiving, and raise money in the process. Marie and I found the perfect collaborator in the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, a full-spectrum, A-list nonprofit organization dedicated to people with Alzheimer's disease and their families. And one of their priorities is helping caregivers.
When Marie and I first sat down with the organization's leaders in New York City in March 2011, we discovered we were already on the same wavelength -- the Alzheimer's Foundation of America had just started a program of brain games at the community level to raise awareness of brain health.
Thus was born the foundation's National Brain Game Challenge, now in its second year. On September 30, when players download this year's puzzle and start solving, they'll not only be solving a challenging, entertaining Sunday crossword -- they'll also be looking for clues to a secret message that is the key to solving the contest. And using the Internet to look things up is perfectly legal, even encouraged.
To make the contest fairer there are two separate player categories, one for casual solvers and one for puzzle professionals, with the first prize in each category being $2,500. The entry fee is $25 and all proceeds go to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. (For details and to register, visit www.alzfdn.org.)
And this year's event will be especially personal for me -- my own mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease this past March.