WEST ORANGE, NJ — Alzheimer’s New Jersey usually holds its annual fundraising walks in the fall, but, just like it upended everything else last year, COVID-19 changed those plans. So now that state outdoor event guidelines have been loosened a bit, the Roseland-based organization is experimenting and holding spring walks this year, kicking one off in West Orange on Sunday, May 16. It’ll be the first ever Walk to Fight Alzheimer’s in West Orange, and the organization’s first in-person event since the fall of 2019.
“We had reserved the dates hoping that if things opened up we would be able to do it,” Ken Zaentz, the president and CEO of Alzheimer’s New Jersey, said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on May 7. “This is a great opportunity to get back into the community. People with Alzheimer’s still have needs. COVID has made it hard and continues to make it hard. So no matter how many people we get, it helps.”
The organization provides support groups for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, support groups for their families and caregivers, care consultations, legal and financial planning, and education programs about the disease. All of these services had to go virtual when COVID-19 shut down normal operations last year.
“We adjusted not what we do but how we do it,” Zaentz said. “We do a lot of caregiving education. People need to plan and have a better understanding of the disease. We already did phone support, so that didn’t change. But we moved all of those support groups to the phone and webinars.”
A year in, as more people get vaccinated and the pandemic is in the early stages of slowing down, Alzheimer’s NJ is in the early stages of ramping back up. The organization found a way to keep functioning but does not want this past year’s practices to become the status quo.
“We want to combine the best of before COVID and the best of what we did with COVID,” Zaentz said. “How can we adapt? We’re learned a lot, but it’s not where we want to stay.”
The coronavirus affected older people in massive numbers, especially those who live in nursing homes. Alzheimer’s NJ’s phones were lighting up throughout the crisis, as employees answered calls and helped those who had family members in nursing homes.
“We were getting a lot of calls on our help lines because they had loved ones in a nursing home, so we started a support group for them,” Zaentz said. “That group has continued, and they’ve gotten a lot out of it.”
Walks are usually large fundraisers for the organization, so Alzheimer’s NJ was forced to adjust after canceling its 2020 events. But being able to raise money isn’t the only benefit to being able to gather and walk across town again: Zaentz said people in the community with the disease or who are caregivers are able to meet other people going through the same thing. They often all live in the same area.
“We’re a community-based organization,” he said. “Everything we raise goes back into the community and into New Jersey. We’re not part of a national organization. If they’re caring for someone, we’re here and local.”
To register for the May 16 walk in West Orange, go to www.alznj.org. The event begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Clipper Pavilion by the reservoir, in the South Mountain Reservation.
“We thought if we’re going to do something, let’s do it as close to home as possible,” Zaentz said.