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DU Chancellor Emerita Dr. Rebecca Chopp on “Living with Joy” After Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

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Owyn Cooper

Communications and Events Specialist

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On Thursday June 8th, 2023, the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging (KIHA) hosted an event with Dr. Rebecca Chopp and Ralph Patrick to speak on the topic of “Refusing to Surrender: Learning to Live Courageously with Dementia.” 

Dr. Rebecca Chopp is the Chancellor Emerita of the University of Denver (DU), and was in office from 2014 through 2019. Ralph Patrick is the Alzheimer's Association's Director of Community Engagement for the Denver Metro area and has been involved in the association for over seven years. The two are also colleagues who get together for coffee to chat and discuss matters relating to Alzheimer’s, and what Dr. Chopp has done to slow the effects of the disease after an early diagnosis. 

Part of that is incorporating a mindful diet, which was featured as part of the talk. The event was catered by MorningStar Assisted Living & Memory Care at Observatory Park, an assisted living facility. The “MIND Diet for Healthy Aging” included aloe water, quinoa salad, roasted veggie skewers, salmon wraps, and dark chocolate granola, all foods that assist in better brain health.

Along with the food and the talk, there were photos all around the room of older adults experiencing their passions, like playing sports, volunteering, and spending time with family, which were taken by photographer Heidi Wagner as part of the Passion Project

The topic of Alzheimer’s disease is personal to both speakers. Dr. Chopp was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in 2019, which was a factor in her stepping down as Chancellor of DU. Patrick’s mother, Jean, also had Alzheimer’s and passed away due to the disease. 

The talk itself focused on many aspects of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Chopp spoke about coming to visit DU to receive a prize back in December of 2019, and knew that she was stepping down from her role of Chancellor after her diagnosis, but hadn’t stated the full truth openly at that point. 

“I just couldn’t use the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ publicly, because I had believed in that binary stigma. Once you’re healthy, (and) then you get diagnosed, then you’re like my grandmother… So I said I was resigning because of complex neurological disorders,” said Dr. Chopp.

After being up for two awards, she received one that evening. “I simply said… ‘When we created KIHA, I didn’t know that KIHA would be there to support me one day with their research, as I have Alzheimer’s.’ Everyone stood in the room. People were crying. I was crying. And then I said, ‘I'm going to do all I can.’ So I have.”

Patrick commended Dr. Chopp for speaking about her disease so openly. “Because a lot of people have shame and stigma with this disease. I’m curious, have you personally experienced any of that kind of stigmatization as a result of people knowing that you have Alzheimer’s?”

“I have, and I do,” Dr. Chopp said. “I’ll never forget one person I know, they started talking louder to me. I said, ‘I’m not going deaf’... “I think some people find it hard, (and then) you become hypersensitive to all the jokes… Also, I would say I have received tremendous support.”

With the stigma, there have been instances of people encountering roadblocks in receiving their diagnosis. Dr. Chopp dealt with her own hurdles in the process of her diagnosis, and also has spoken to several people in her activism work about these challenges. “I have so many friends tell me about how they couldn’t get diagnosed, that they would ask their doctor to give them an exam, and doctors wouldn’t because ‘there’s nothing you can do.’ And that’s such B.S.” 

Dr. Chopp detailed her own diagnosis process, first with a primary care physician who noticed the signs. The issues started when she saw a neurologist who told her to quit her job and that “in probably three years, four years, maybe two, you won’t be able to button your shirt. You won’t be able to feed yourself.” This experience lead to Dr. Chopp getting a second opinion.

“(The new neurologist) was kind. She showed me my brain scans… she told me lucky people could live up to 20 years after their diagnosis,” said Dr. Chopp. This neurologist also walked through treatment options and lifestyle changes that Dr. Chopp could adopt.

“One thing she told me was to ‘live with joy.’ I’m sitting there with the shock of my life, thinking I’m going to have to retire. I have to quit a job I love… and she says ‘live with joy.’” Dr. Chopp said. “I was going to stay in the light (and joy) as much as I could.” 

Of the lifestyle changes, Dr. Chopp said her neurologist recommended “diet, exercise… and time for creativity.” She started eating the MIND diet as featured at the event, walking 4-5 miles every day with her dog, Buddha, and painting with friends in the mountains.

Dr. Chopp spoke on the decision to write a book. “People told me to write a book about my experiences. The more I thought about it, (the more I realized) we need to tell our stories... I went and looked, and (I only saw) stories about caregivers, and there are three written by people with Alzheimer’s.” Dr. Chopp has published four books in her career, and this book would be her fifth. 

Patrick and Dr. Chopp continued to speak about the activism surrounding the discussion around Alzheimer’s. There are drugs running into issues with Medicare, and protests that Dr. Chopp is involved in. She ended by saying, “In this paradox of having more time and less time, I seek to feel the awe that comes to me through landscapes, poetry and music, and even science.” 

After the keynote portion of the event, Dr. Chopp and Patrick took the time to answer questions and listen to stories from those who attended, including a discussion with a nurse who works with patients who have Alzheimer’s. As part of the event, there were neurologists available to provide free memory screenings. “I want to encourage others to get the short term memory detection test. Go, do that as a baseline. Even if you're fine,” Dr. Chopp said. “(Start a) discussion about this disease.” 

The full discussion with Dr. Chopp and Patrick is available here. Here are more resources about healthy aging with KIHA here.

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