For the past several years, Watertown’s Judith Johanson has dedicated her time to spread awareness about Alzheimer’s Disease, raise money to find a cure and advocate for more research. The effort started after her husband Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s just before he turned 59.
One of the annual events held in Watertown is the Longest Day walk at Victory Field, which the Johanson’s started eight years ago in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Association. Steve passed away in April 2018, but the walk will still happen, and this year a new event has been added to the Longest Day.
Judith got the idea for an Alzheimer’s event after seeing the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life at Victory Field.
“They have the Survivor’s Lap, where you see survivors walk around the track. They beat the disease,” Judith said. “With Alzheimer’s we don’t have any survivors.”
While there is no Survivor’s Lap during the Longest Day walk, there is the Hope Lap.
“We do it to give hope for the future,” Judith said. “We hope that there will be a time we can celebrate a cure to this disease.”
Steve passed away in April 2018. Judith wanted to continue the Hope Lap on the Longest Day, and it will once again be held at Victory Field at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 15.
The first Longest Day Walk started soon after Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“We decided to do it as a coming out party for the community,” Judith said. “A lot of people knew Steve, and it seemed like a good way to give back.”
Many in town knew Steve because he worked for many years at the Watertown Boys & Girls Club as assistant director and activities director. When he and Judith started a family, they needed more money, so he went back to school and became a construction manager for Northeastern University.
Steve worked on many projects, including transforming the old medical school into Northeastern’s new Law School. It was at his job that the effects of Alzheimer’s began to show up.
“In 2011, he was having problems with follow through,” Judith said. “He got a poor job performance evaluation. He was devastated.”
After the diagnosis, Judith and Steve began working with the Alzheimer’s Association, which has a chapter in Waltham.
“Steve and I would go to Washington every year to advocate for more funding for research,” Judith said. “We also went to the State House (in Boston).”
One thing that the Johanson’s advocated for is to require doctors to tell their patients that they have Alzheimer’s.
“Only 45 percent of patients are told they have Alzheimer’s by their doctor,” Judith said. “We believe everyone should know they were diagnosed with a disease that will change their whole lives.”
The first year of the Longest Day Walk drew hundreds of people. Judith said Alzheimer’s touches many people, whether it’s a mother, a grandmother or a sibling.
The walk is not the only part of the Longest Day. People set up lemonade stands around town to collect money for Alzheimer’s.
“We raised $5,000 to $10,000 through the years,” Judith said. “No one can refuse a child running a lemonade stand.”
This year, another activity will be added to the Longest Day events in Watertown, this one started by someone who Steve knew from his days at the Boys & Girls Club.
Mark Tardiff remembers Steve as his youth travel basketball coach when he was growing up in Watertown. Tardiff spent a lot of time at the Boys & Girls Club, and said things came full circle when he became the president of the Board of Directors of the Club. He finished his term a few years ago.
Tardiff, too has been touched by Alzheimer’s Disease. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and she recently had to be moved into a nursing home.
Tardiff’s daughter Alicia played softball at Watertown High School, and had organized some Alzheimer’s events when she attended University of New Hampshire. When looking for another way to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s, the Tardiffs decided to put together a softball game as part of the Longest Day.
On June 15, the Watertown High School varsity softball team will take on a team of WHS softball alumni at the Lowell School Playground at 11:30 a.m.
“We’ve got 15 to 18 alumni coming,” Tardiff said. “They will all be wearing purple Alzheimer’s T-shirts. We’ll also have a lemonade stand. It’s so close to Vic that whoever is interested can come up.”
The day will wrap up with the Longest Table, another event hosted the last several years by the Johansons. Their block of Quirk Street is closed off and long tables are set up in the street. People bring their own dishes, have dinner and pay tribute to those with Alzheimer’s.
“We honor those who passed, remember for those living with the disease and hope for our future, for the future generation that they will live in a world with no (Alzheimer’s Disease),” Judith said.
People can bring items or photos to remember relatives and friends who died from Alzheimer’s to place at an ofrendas, like those created for the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos).
At sunset, the end of the Longest Day, each person lights a glow stick to remember their loved one, and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” is played.
Find out more about The Longest Day, and how to donate at http://www.thisisourlifetld.org/hopelap/. The Hope Lap will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 15, the softball game will be at 11:30 a.m. at the Lowell Playground, and the Longest Dinner Table will begin at 4:30 p.m. on Quirk Street (just off Waverley Avenue).