CHESHIRE -- More than 600 people gathered along Cheshire Lake on Saturday morning to celebrate, support and honor loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer's Disease by walking the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in the 21st annual Berkshire Walk to End Alzheimer's.
"We'll keep doing this until we stop this disease," Karen Gold, a volunteer member of the event's planning committee said. Gold has participated in the walks for 21 years. "It's a devastating disease, and right now, there is no way to stop it or cure it."
The Berkshire Alzheimer's Partnership teamed up with the Western Massachusetts Regional Office of the Alzheimer's Association to organize the charity walk.
According to Bianca Walker, of the Alzheimer's Association office in Springfield, the event has a twofold purpose: "We raise research dollars, and we raise awareness."
According to Gold, last year's walk raised $100,000. Organizers said this year's event had between 600 and 700 participants, putting organizers on the path to best last year's results.
Many people participating in the event formed teams of close friends and family to walk the four-mile stretch of the rail trail along Cheshire Lake between Farnams Causeway and the Bass Water Grill.
"It's a supportive day. I'm with her sisters. It helps to remember her in a good way," 41-year-old Pittsfield resident Amy Roy said, making mention of her mother, Cathy, who died two years ago after a fight with Alzheimer's.
Roy stood among four other people wearing purple shirts that read, "Cathy's Crusaders." Roy's mother was a cheerleader at St. Joseph's Central High School in Pittsfield, and her family members chose the name of St. Joseph's sports teams both as a poignant message and to honor their loved one.
"She was a wonderful woman; lit up a room," Roy said of her mother.
Pre-walk events Saturday included a 9:30 a. m. remembrance ceremony led by WBRK's Cheryl Tripp Cleveland, who held back tears as she acknowledged the team of volunteers and told their stories of living with Alzheimer's sufferers. She also spoke of her best friend, Jane Casey, who was diagnosed with the disease eight years ago.
"She's been my best friend for 30 years. I'm still struggling with this," she said after the ceremony. "Without the help of the Alzheimer's Association, the things that were going on with her, I would never been able to handle it."
Support is one of the main ways the Alzheimer's Association helps people dealing with the disease, according to Walker.
"We have a 24/7 hotline that is used a lot by caregivers," Walker said. "We provide one-on-one guidance and support, and let them know they are not alone."
According to both Walker and Gold, Alzheimer's has the potential to affect 15 million people by the year 2050 as the baby boomer generation ages.
According to the Alzheimer's Association website, the disease currently affects five million people and is the sixth leading cause of death in America. The disease cost the nation $203 billion in 2013, but that cost is expected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050.
"If we don't get the funding, there is going to be a huge epidemic. That's what we are trying to prevent," Walker said.
The Alzheimer's Association's 24 hour helpline is 1-800-272-3900. For more information, visit the organization's website, www.alz.org.