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Former mayor’s son explains how his dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis has helped him learn and love

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IDAHO FALLS – Dallen Fuhriman of Idaho Falls remembers clearly where he was when he realized how serious his dad’s illness was becoming.

About three years ago, he was living in Arizona and was on a camping trip with his kids. He took a photo of them and sent it to his dad. He was shocked when his dad responded with the words, “Who are they?”

“At that point, I realized this was a lot more than just forgetting a few things. I packed up my family, and within three weeks I moved back to Idaho,” Fuhriman tells EastIdahoNews.com.

In 2011, Fuhriman’s dad was diagnosed with memory cognitive impairment, an early form of Alzheimer’s disease. The years since have had their share of ups and downs as Dallen, his seven siblings and his mom, Karen, have learned more about his illness and how to deal with it emotionally. Dallen now works for MorningStar Senior Living of Idaho Falls and he’s partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association to host an event next weekend.

Watching a family member gradually decline from an independent, active member of the community to someone who needs constant care and supervision is painful, but for Fuhriman, there was an added layer of emotion because of who his dad is.

“Everybody knows who my dad is. His name is Jared Fuhriman, and he used to be the mayor of Idaho Falls,” Dallen says.

The diagnosis has come with a lot of personal sacrifice for both Jared and members of his family. Though Jared had originally planned to run for a third and fourth term, his illness forced him to step down in 2012 after serving two. This in turn eventually lead Karen to quit her job so she could stay home and take care of him full time.

RELATED | Life Lessons: Karen Fuhriman shares what she’s learned since her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

Dallen quit his job with Tesla in 2018 and took a job as the director of community relations at MorningStar so he could be closer to his dad.

“I really wanted to work in something that could help my dad because I didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s. I still don’t know a whole lot,” he says. “My dad is now 59 years old and his Alzheimer’s has progressed quite a bit. He’s probably in stage three or four right now.”

Today, Dallen says his dad no longer remembers his name and doesn’t speak more than about 10 words a day. Despite that, Dallen works hard daily to be there for him and to let him know how much he loves him.

Coming to terms with an illness you can’t control

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Aging, but recent advancements have brought new understanding for managing it. Earlier this week, the FDA approved the use of an experimental drug designed to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s — not just ease symptoms.

RELATED | In controversial decision, FDA approves first new Alzheimer’s disease drug in nearly 20 years

“This medication will only work in early stages. It does nothing for my dad right now,” says Dallen. “Had this drug been around when my dad was 40, it might have slowed the disease’s progression. Maybe it would not have affected his life as much.”

Despite this, Dallen says a program offered at MorningStar called Lavendar Sky has taught him a lot.

“It’s about knowing who that person is and giving them a purpose in life. You have to give them their reality and understand who they are and what makes them feel important,” he says.

Dallen recalls a MorningStar resident who had severe behavior issues due to his Alzheimer’s. He would get extremely angry and had violent tendencies. One of the caregivers learned he had been a potato farmer in Shelley his whole life. She started taking him to a field every day and his mood changed instantly.

“We’ve never had a behavior issue with him ever since because he felt important and (validated) and in his mind, it was planting season, (and that’s what made him happy),” Dallen says.

Similarly, Dallen says his dad’s memory problem and inability to communicate his feelings will make him frustrated sometimes and he’ll run away. He’s discovered there are two things that help his dad feel important — yard work and going out to eat.

“The other day, my dad was sweeping the sidewalk because it was dusty. He swept it for a good hour. It didn’t need to be swept, but it isn’t hurting (anyone or anything) so he can sweep it all day if he wants to. The point is it’s giving him purpose,” he says.

When it comes to Dallen’s relationship with his dad, he says every day is different and some days are more challenging than others. But he’s learned to take it one day at a time and to not take his dad’s ever-changing moods personally because it’s the effect of a disease that’s beyond anyone’s control.

He’s grateful for the days when his dad is happy and has a sense of purpose. Regardless of his dad’s condition, he remains hopeful that one day there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s and other related illnesses.

“I firmly believe in the next 10 years you’re going to see a lot of change with Alzheimer’s and the way it’s treated because the limelight is starting to turn. I’ve been working with the Alzheimer’s Association (for several years now). Every month, there’s something new. It’s slowly building and once it takes off, I think that’s really going to be the change that we need,” says Dallen.

MorningStar is partnering with Visiting Angels and other organizations for a community carnival to raise awareness and funding for the Alzheimers Association. It’s happening Saturday, June 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Lunch will be available for $5 and there will be booths with prizes and games. A dunk tank and petting zoo will be on-hand as well, along with live music and raffle prizes.

Dallen and Visiting Angels of Eastern Idaho President Mike Beckstead are asking for your support and are hoping for a good turnout.

“So many people think this is a normal part of getting old and it’s not. It’s a disease that is taking over and people need to be aware of that. They need to know where to go and how to get guidance through this whole process because the earlier you catch it, the better, and that’s why we’re doing what we do,” Beckstead says.

dallen and jared
Fuhriman family photo during a recent “Walk to end Alzheimer’s” event in Idaho Falls. Dallen is in back on the left and Jared is on the far right in the back. | Courtesy Dallen Fuhriman
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