Martha Richardson Takes the Helm at Vermont Alzheimer’s Association

November 10, 2010  
Filed under Business

By Susan Green

In a windowless Williston office without decorations, the poster resting on top of a file cabinet bears the catchphrase: “The compassion to care, the leadership to conquer.”

On a mild autumn morning, that designation might just apply to the woman sitting behind a desk in the center of the room: Martha Richardson, the recently hired executive director of the national Alzheimer’s Association’s Vermont chapter.

“I really thought this is such an incredible match,” she says of her qualifications for the job, which Richardson assumed on July 1 or — in organizational parlance — “the start of the new fiscal year.”

Four months in, November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and she’s already an old pro. Since September 18, Richardson has overseen six Memory Walks throughout the state. Even before the final one took place in mid-October, pledges had risen from $87,000 in calendar year 2009 to $111,000 for 2010.

The Colchester resident has been “in the nonprofit corner” for all of her working life. With a significant background in development, Richardson would like to bump up the chapter’s annual budget from $275,000 to $300,000.

Those dollars are much needed to provide information, referrals, education, consultation and support services to help the 11,000 Vermonters with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The U.S. total is about 5.3 million.

“With aging Baby Boomers, the numbers are going to be staggering,” Richardson suggests. “For those over age 65, one in seven will have it. Over 85, that will be at least 50 percent. We’ve gotten good at keeping people alive, but nobody wants to grow old with Alzheimer’s.”

Moreover, an estimated 10.9 million caregivers, mostly unpaid, shoulder the responsibility for people stricken with the fatal disease. “Family members try to keep their loved ones home as long as possible,” she notes. “They can feel exhausted and overwhelmed. We hear from them.”

The cause of Alzheimer’s has not yet been identified, Richardson points out, “but we hope to begin opening everyone’s eyes to the problem.”

One goal is to remove any stigma. “It was once embarrassing to have cancer. With Alzheimer’s, we try make it clear that you didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t have to do with a lifestyle choice,” Richardson says.
Despite this proviso and the fact that no treatment or medication currently exists to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, she says, “There are things that can be done for the health of the brain, like jigsaw puzzles or Sudoko — both of which I enjoy in my spare time. Keeping the brain active is a good idea. People should avoid being sedentary or maintaining a small social world.”

For her, the issue of progressive brain disorders with no cure turned personal. Richardson’s father-in-law suffered from dementia; he died in 2008.

A Missouri native who attended high school in Pittsburgh, she majored in economics at the University of Vermont and graduated in 1980. Richardson worked as a development director at the Putney School — in the hometown of her husband Seth Richards — before moving north in 1986. The couple has two children, both now in college.

She went from auction coordinator to pledge drive manager during 15 years with Vermont Public Television, followed by a development position at Champlain College in the late 1990s.

After a good friend had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Richardson was inspired to spend a decade working at the Vermont chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. “But Vermont was merging with Boston, so my only choice was to leave the state or look for something else to do,” she explains.

That something else required her to hit the ground running with the Alzheimer’s Association, which had been without a permanent executive director for seven months. The hiring of Richardson brings the staff to three, including the director of programs (Brattleboro-based Maggie Lewis) and the development director (Ashley Witzenberger). The trio relies on volunteers to carry out various activities; for the recent Memory Walks, some 300 of them signed on to interact with 1,000 participants.

Although she hasn’t had time to embellish her office decor, Richardson is enthusiastic about the gig: “I love what I’m doing and the people I work with. That’s invigorating. I’m a firm believer in collaborative partnerships.”

Her only complaint at the moment? “We could use more help with raising community awareness,” she acknowledges.

Awareness is crucial to preparation for the future. Experts predict that by 2050, there’ll be as many as 19 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s.

“That’s a crisis, but we can change it. Our biggest hope is to slow down if not eradicate the disease,” Richardson says, sounding a lot like someone with the compassion to care and the leadership to conquer.

For more information, go to www.alz.org/vermont or call (802) 316-3839.

 

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