Former NFL coach faces toughest opponent: Alzheimer's Disease

Growing up in the Schottenheimer house there was a midnight rule. Whatever happened on the field, whether good or bad, the family moved forward at the stroke of midnight.

“Okay, the clock is ticking over at midnight and we are going to move on to the next day,” explained Kristen Schottenheimer, daughter of NFL Coach Marty Schottenheimer.

It’s a strategy she and her mom, Pat, use to this day with her father who is fighting his toughest opponent Alzheimer’s disease. “My mom and I make a good team. We made a promise that we would be honest with each other and not try to protect the other one,” she said.

It all started about nine years ago when the family realized their dad started to be a little off recalls Kristen.

They used to lovingly call him the pathfinder because he was a whiz with directions or maps. That started to change as they would get turned around or lost. The signs were subtle, but there. Not long after doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s.

“For a family like us, the immediate response is to fight and win. We learned more and more about the disease that you don’t fight and win you just have to finish,” said Kristen.

She remembers her father as being serious on the sidelines but the fun loving father who made pancakes in his pajamas on Saturday mornings. He’s also a proud Papa to four grandchildren.

“The grandchildren spend as much time as they can with him. There’s been an evolution from not understanding why Papa is the way he is to absolutely nurturing him and taking care of him in an incredible way that makes you proud as a parent,” said Kristen.

It’s not easy to watch the person who you have always known slowly slip away.

The Schottenheimers call Charlotte home now. After the diagnosis the family received support and continue to from former players, coaches and friends. They were initially hesitant to reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association Western Carolina Chapter. It’s something she says her mom wishes they had done sooner.

“I know my mom says it’s one of the best things she has done,” explained Kristen. “The association gives us a sense of purpose and a path and let us know that we were not alone.”

“I think there are so many families that would say they wish they had done something sooner,” said Katherine Lambert, the CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Western Carolina Chapter.

Being a caregiver isn’t a job that you can take on and take off. “We can provide people with the resources they need to find respite,” said Redia Baker with the association.

Together they are pushing to let other families know it takes a team to fight this disease.

Early Screenings

A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association highlights the need for more seniors to get their cognitive health screened on a yearly basis. An estimated one in seven are screened now.

“The sooner we get that cognitive assessment done the sooner we see if there is the potential and where that person falls on the spectrum,” said Baxter who is a strong advocate for seniors to get screened.

The earlier, she says, the easier it is to make a plan.

Alzheimer’s affects a person’s memory, their language and eventually their ability to do common tasks like walk.

“It affects thinking ability without affecting outward appearance so you’re dealing with someone you know for many years but their responses have changed,” said Dr. Mark Pippenger, a behavioral neurologist with Novant Health.

Pippenger screens patients for Alzheimer’s disease. He’s hopeful progress will be made with the disease.

“We haven’t found anything that will stop disease progression but we have drugs that will delay so we can give people a little more time at a functional level,” explained Pippenger.

Through a series of simple tests and questions Pippenger can pick up and spot the differences between aging and Alzheimer’s. He says increasing awareness is important so families can call attention to when they start noticing changes.

He says if you have any concerns about a family member one of the earliest signs is forgetfulness. Your loved one may repeat things and questions they should know like appointment times for example.

Researchers are working to find a cure and a way to stop the progression of the disease by 2025. Pippenger has hope researchers will achieve that or at least be very close.

To keep your brain active and healthy Pippenger suggests exercise, eating a healthy diet and mental stimulation. That could be playing games with friends or trying to learn a new language.

As for Kristen, she says there are good days and really bad days with her dad. That’s part of why they take it one day at a time.

A few weeks ago they went to the Queens Cup Steeplechase. That, Kristen said, was a very good day.

“We got to be normal. He got to be normal and I got to be normal,” said Kristen as she smiled.

For now, the family is at a stage where they are managing the disease. She knows things are going to continue to change and that’s tough to think about.

The Alzheimer’s Association provides a 24/7 help line 1-800-272-3900. The association has put together a list of the 10 signs of Alzheimer’s disease.