Johnny Morris set out from Springer Mountain, Ga., on March 2, hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise money for MemoryCare, an Asheville nonprofit founded by his mother, Dr. Margaret Noel. So far, the 23-year-old Asheville native has raised nearly $17,000 to help the nonprofit care for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
“I had the idea to hike for MemoryCare, and people could donate based on miles hiked if they wanted to,” says Morris. “It’s been a great way to give to an organization that I have a deep connection with and that I sincerely believe needs it.” No other organization provides the services that MemoryCare does, he says. “More and more people find out about them and decide they are a one-of-a-kind organization.”
MemoryCare provides comprehensive services to caregivers as well as patients with memory impairments. It involves caregivers in every office visit and engages more than three caregivers for each patient, says Noel.
The idea was to “develop a model that would uphold the dignity of persons with dementia, who are too often neglected by our fractured health care system, and incorporate their caregivers into the evaluation and management process,” says Noel. “Failure to do so leads to delayed diagnosis, poor management and great frustration among caregivers.”
The integrated model of care provided by MemoryCare, she adds, helps patients stay in their homes longer, which saves money in medical care.
Noel notes that her son’s hike has brought awareness of Alzheimer’s disease to a younger generation. “If you look at our Facebook page, we’ve gone from 20 people checking in to almost 300 followers,” she says. “It’s made a big difference. It’s brought awareness to people who probably don’t realize how this is impacting their parents and their grandparents and will impact them at some point.”
Morris says he enjoys having conversations with other hikers on the trail who may not know much about Alzheimer’s. “It’s interesting to see who knows what Alzheimer’s is and who doesn’t,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to explain to them why I’m doing it and why Alzheimer’s disease and caring for those who have it is so pertinent and relevant.
“A lot of people think it’s way off in the distance, that it’s an obscure disease that only old people get, which is not really true,” he adds. ”It’s not a disease just for people 70 plus. It’s a disease that can affect people as early as their 40s or 50s. It’s a devastating disease, and there’s no cure for it.”
Morris admits that, growing up, he was influenced by his mother and her work with Alzheimer’s. “Obviously my mother has been deeply rooted in MemoryCare, and by extension I have been too. It’s been table conversation for a long time, as early as I can remember. I’ve helped out volunteering, and I recently led a skills class with my mother and another teacher. I’ve definitely had a connection with the organization. For me this hike is as much about me as it is about doing good for it.”
Noel echoes her son’s recollections about the influence of her work: “He has watched this organization from its beginning. … We’re 15 years old, and he’s 23. From the time he’s been aware of my work, it has always been with older adults who had cognitive disorders.” She believes the influence has carried over into his choice of physical therapy as a career. In the fall Morris will start a graduate program in physical therapy at Western Carolina University. “He’s obviously going to work with a number of older adults. If you think 1 in 9 people over 65 have dementia, and 1 in 3 over 85, this will be a population he’ll work with closely,” she says.
“I think she’s a great person,” Morris says about his mother, adding that she’s been a role model to him. But as much as his hike is about honoring the work of his mother and his connection to her, it’s about creating his own path. “I’m at that point where it’s time for me to do my own thing and fly the coop. Both she and my dad are getting used to that,” he says. “I’m really out on my own now. I think the time I chose to hike the A.T. is significant and meaningful for me. I’m at this juncture where it’s up to me to decide what I do and who I become.”
Noel acknowledges she has had reservations about him being out on the trail. “As a mom, I can imagine all kinds of things. I’ve worried about him being alone, getting Lyme disease and losing weight,” she says. “But you watch your child grow and become mature. I’ve seen him become more competent and confident. He’s developed a strong love for the outdoors, for challenging himself physically and developing the strength of endurance.”
Even though Morris has undertaken the hike to support MemoryCare, he has done so without any support from the organization. Noel notes that when he decided to do the hike, he wrote a pledge letter, and MemoryCare publicized it. “But otherwise we’re not helping him. He went out and got his own sponsors for equipment,” Noel says. “But I do bake brownies and send him care packages as a mom.”
So far Morris has raised $16,600 in donations and pledges on his hike. Noel says the total amount will provide care for 33 patients and 99 caregivers for a year. “The goal is $20,000,” says Morris, “but MemoryCare will need an additional $11,000 by July 1 to satisfy its annual operational budget.” Morris says he still hopes to be able to raise the extra amount needed to close the gap.
At this point Morris has hiked about 3/4 of the 2,189-mile trail. He expects to hit the Mount Greylock area in Massachusetts this week and plans to finish the trail by mid-July in order to be ready for his physical-therapy program in August.
Morris says that having the commitment to the cause of Alzheimer’s has made the hike easier. “I’ve received support from so many people. I know that when they donate, it’s because I’m hiking,” he says. “And with every mile, whenever the going gets tough, it’s a great thing to have in the back of my mind — that people are out there supporting me and watching the posts that I update. People care, and that’s a rewarding thing to be a part of.”