When Walt Zerrenner walked through the Community Foundation’s doors in March, he had a love story on his mind. His wife of 54 years, Aline, has been living with Alzheimer’s for the past decade, and Walt wanted to set up a fund to honor her and help others in the Fox Valley living with the disease.
He met his future bride in the summer of 1964, on a New Jersey beach. He’d just finished four years in the Marine Corps, and Aline had graduated from Montclair College and was teaching high school math. The two hit it off, married a year later and built a life together.
Fast forward to their 2006 vacation in New York City, when Walt noticed the first signs that something was wrong.
“Aline was often tired and lethargic, and not interested in doing the things we normally do on our trips. When we came home I made an appointment with our family physician. An MRI showed she’d had a mini stroke.”
Three years and many doctors’ visits later, Aline was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Walt’s world changed drastically. He quit his lucrative consulting practice to care for Aline full time. Cooking, cleaning, medication management and driving to medical appointments became his new normal.
Alzheimer’s wasn’t the fairy tale they had planned, but Walt was determined to focus on what they still could do together, and how Walt could make a difference.
“We started participating in memory cafés through the Fox Valley Memory Project – in fact we were part of the very first memory café. Aline continued playing bridge with her friends at first, and we took daily tours of our yard to look at the flowers and trees. We also dined out and took in shows at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.”
Since then he’s been raising awareness and funding for Alzheimer’s care and research. “At last year’s Appleton Walk to End Alzheimer’s we had our own team named ‘Walking for Our Wives.’ We raised $18,835!”
Walt formed a men’s dementia support group in the Fox Cities, and this past February launched a second group that meets at Touchmark in Appleton, the care facility where Aline has been living these past four years. He was honored in 2017 by the Alzheimer’s Association as the Wisconsin Family Caregiver of the Year. He also received a senatorial recognition from Senator Ron Johnson as Wisconsin’s Outstanding Caregiver 2017.
Today Aline is in the advanced stages but still recognizes family and friends. She lives full time at Touchmark, where Walt continues his loving care for her. And in her name he now has a way to make a difference for others walking his path: The Aline Zerrenner Dementia-Friendly Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region is propelling Walt’s dream of creating a dementia-friendly community in the Fox Valley.
“The Community Foundation walked me through the process, discussing the different types of funds and the flexible options available to donors, and I liked the idea of a field of interest fund. My goal was to make it easy for nonprofits to obtain funding and not have to go through hoops for grants, and also to have anyone be able to contribute to the fund.”
Walt says there are many larger research organizations focused on fundraising rather than on the people needing the dementia care. “I want to keep it local and make sure the people who need projects are getting the funding to help make the Fox Valley a great place to live for people with Alzheimer’s and their families.”