An inspiration – that’s what Nancy Jenkins has been all her life – and continues to be even in the face of Alzheimer’s disease, which is gradually destroying her memory and thinking abilities. These days, Nancy is inspiring others, even her husband, Larry, to follow her footsteps in advancing research for Alzheimer’s disease. An active participant in the longitudinal research program at the University of California Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) for the past 8 years, Nancy is allowing doctors to follow the progression of her disease annually and has agreed to donate her brain upon death. In the meantime, Nancy is participating in every study she can – including donating cerebral spinal fluid and tears for research directed at identifying biomarkers for Alzheimer’s and most recently undergoing an 18-month course of infusions in a double-blind clinical trial of intravenous immune globulin in hopes of helping scientists develop a new, more effective treatment for the disease. A year ago, when given the option to also join the longitudinal research program as a successful ager, and subsequently donate his own cerebral spinal fluid, Larry got his encouragement from Nancy, who told him, as she has many others in her life, “Yes, you can.” And so Larry joined, donated, and has just scheduled his second annual evaluation.
Now Nancy thrives with ongoing support from the many friends who, over the years, gained their strength in facing life’s challenges from her encouragement. Just take Page, a friend of 49 years, who became a school teacher after divorcing her husband because Nancy said, “Yes, you can.” Or Florence, who managed to survive her divorce because Nancy said, “Yes, you can.” Now Nancy’s lifetime friends Page and Florence, and Terri, Stella, Pat, and Diane surround Nancy with the love, support, and caring she needs to stay positive as Alzheimer’s disease takes its toll. So these friends are taking their turn in saying “Yes, you can” to Nancy in words and actions that make it easier for her to cope with the ongoing changes in her memory, thinking, and everyday abilities as well as the hearing and vision loss that compound the difficulties she now has comprehending and processing information. During 36 four-hour infusion sessions at Nancy’s home that spanned 18 months, it was these friends who laughed and joked with Nancy to make the time go by and then shared long lunches with her afterwards.
While Nancy needs some help remembering her childhood and young adulthood these days, Larry recounts how her father made sure Nancy had a college education, saying “Yes, you can (and will)” to his daughter and instilling the persistence that is now making it possible for her to keep Alzheimer’s disease in perspective with humor, the love of her long-term friends, and the animals – pigs and dogs – on the couple’s one-acre farm in Norco. Even though Nancy’s memories are becoming more fragmented, she still recalls that career options open to her as a young woman entering college in the 1950s were a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, far from her dream of going into the forestry.
Born in Topeka, Nancy’s family ultimately settled in Garden Grove, where Nancy finished high school before entering college. Nancy met Larry, a senior, near the end of her freshman year and the couple married a year later and had their first daughter, Jo-Ellen, 5 days before their first anniversary. While Larry finished his stint in the military at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Nancy went to John Hopkins University, but, as a woman, was only allowed to take classes after 5 pm. In 1962, after relocating to California, Nancy received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Whittier College and, just three months later, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Greg.
Nancy and Larry spent five years in Glendora, where a third child, Jeff, arrived by adoption at age two-and-a-half. In 1969, the couple moved to Norco, their home for the past 43 years. While Larry pursued his career in engineering and computer programming, Nancy taught 4th to 6thgraders, specializing in math and reading, and earned her master’s degree in education and administrative credentials from Pepperdine University. A master teacher, she mentored student teachers, much as she encouraged her personal friends and the 85 children participating in the 4-H Club she led with her sister. A forester at heart, Nancy and Larry had a small farm, replete with pigs, goats, horses, steers, sheep, dogs, and cats, where they guided 4-H’ers in animal-related projects and related bookkeeping. Over the years, Nancy and Larry have enjoyed traveling, especially in pursuit of animals – polar bears in the Hudson Bay, penguins at the South Pole, bald eagles over the Stikine River, and the wildlife of Africa on a “fabulous” safari.
In 1984, Nancy ended her teaching career and built a successful business – Complete Health Food Store in Rialto – which she sold in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, Nancy came to the UCI MIND Memory Assessment and Research Center for the first time, concerned about the memory difficulties she had been experiencing since 2000. After a full evaluation, was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a high-risk pre-dementia state. By 2009, Nancy’s MCI had progressed to Alzheimer’s disease. For Larry and Nancy, being part of the longitudinal research program, “is the biggest support factor we could ever ask for – you get the whole team.” Even as Nancy’s memory and thinking abilities continue to diminish, she remains clear that she’s going to say yes to any research study she’s eligible for because, in her words, “I don’t want anyone else to have to do it” – to live through Alzheimer’s disease.
As a faithful research volunteer, Nancy is courageously standing behind UCI MIND, along with Larry, saying, “Yes, you can” win the war on Alzheimer’s disease and make memories last a lifetime for future generations. For this, all of us at UCI MIND are forever grateful.