Tulsa Couple Faces Early Onset Dementia Diagnosis

Thursday, August 25th 2011, 9:36 am
By: News On 6

Dan Bewley, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Pat Summitt's announcement that she has early onset dementia has rallied those who are fighting the deadly disease. Summitt is one of the country's most successful women's basketball coaches.

Thousands of people across the country are battling the disease, including some right here in green country.

Bob Sillman was diagnosed with early onset dementia five years ago. He can longer go for his daily walks and often forgets why he walked into a room.

"Like Shirley said, it's an ongoing thing. Everyday it's different," said Bob Sillman, dementia patient.

The Sillmans celebrated 43 years of marriage on Wednesday, and Shirley says watching her husband's mind deteriorate has been extremely difficult.

"I mean he can't think; I know he doesn't read any more, so it's just hard," said Shirley Sillman, Bob's wife.

Bob's situation is very similar to that of Pat Summitt. The University of Tennessee women's basketball coach announced Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with the same disease.

"Earlier this year the doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with a early onset dementia," she said.

Summitt is the winningest coach in NCAA history and 59 years old.

"We're seeing a lot more in their 50s," said Denyce Willis of the Alzheimer's Association. "We know of some people in their 30s and their 40s."

Denyce Willis works with early or younger onset dementia patients with the Alzheimer's Association in Tulsa. She says there are number of warning signs including, withdrawal from work or social activities; the individual can no longer plan or solve problems; they're confused with time or places, and they have problems with words.

Coach Summitt says she plans to continue working, although she says she will rely more on her assistant coaches.

Willis says it's not unusual for those diagnosed with early onset dementia to continue working although she advises to be open with everyone.

Being open is the key or, as Shirley likes to say, "don't hide, get help."

"It's a disease; it's an illness," said Shirley Sillman, wife of an Alzheimer's disease patient.

"I mean if you had cancer would you hide? No. You'd get help if you had cancer, if you have any other illness so why not this one?"

There's a special event this weekend to help fight Alzheimer's.

The Walk to End Alzheimer's starts at 8 a.m.Saturday at the Mabee Center with a 5k run. The walk begins at 9:30.