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Wheelock became connected to Alzheimerâs when the disease claimed her grandmother shortly after high school graduation.
âI will never forget the last day I saw her,â Wheelock said. âShe didnât recognize me or anyone around her, and she needed help just turning over in bed.â
Like so many losing a loved one to a fatal disease, Wheelock learned all she could, admitting she didnât know much at first.
âI didnât really understand Alzheimerâs at the time, and the disease is more common than people might think,â she said.
She also didnât know continuing education was in her future as her mother, Barb, also was diagnosed with the disease nearly a dozen years later. Wheelock has learned to listen patiently when talking with her mother, who is diagnosed as being in the moderate stages of the disease.
âShe will ask me the same question about 10 times in 10 minutes, and each time, it will be like a new question to her,â Wheelock said about her mom, 69. âI have learned to be patient, and just answer it like Iâm answering it new each time.â
Growing up on a farm didnât make Wheelock an advocate for Alzheimerâs. But Wheelockâs father, Dale, believes it didnât hurt either.
âI like to think she gets her drive from growing up on a farm,â Dale Wheelock said. âShe could easily have gotten a regular job but chose to do this.â
Wheelockâs parents have been married for 38 years, and Wheelock said she is grateful that her mother still recognizes her.
Wheelock remembers her reaction to the initial news of the diagnosis: âIt was really hard to hear, but it has also spurred me to become an advocate.
âI started attending support groups through the Alzheimerâs Association, fundraising and taking educational classes on the disease.â
Sheâs not only an advocate for raising awareness, but her talent regularly takes her into environments where music can provide healing and hope.
Wheelock has been performing at Wynwood Assisted Living in Madison for more than a year now, and according to program coordinator Julia Comer, she is special for their community.
âShe brings a fresh, young voice to the old classics as well as performing some newer songs and even her own songs,â Comer said. âMy residents look forward to her coming every month to kick off our birthday party and welcoming social on the first Friday each month.â
Itâs Wheelockâs dream to simply immerse herself in her music personally and professionally, but she also holds down two part-time jobs.
None of that has stopped her from doing more to help fund what she said is underfunded research.
Last August, Wheelock set out to produce a compilation CD to sell at an annual Madison fundraising walk for Alzheimerâs. She reached out to area artists and the project was complete in just about a month.
The title of the album, âSmilinâ On,â also is the title cut featuring Wheelock and her 18-year-old musician friend Gabe Burdulis, whose grandfather died from the disease.
She and Burdulis had the same idea about an album.
âHe asked if he could write a song specifically for the album. I told him that I wanted to do the same thing,â Wheelock said. âSo we collaborated and came up with the song âSmilinâ On.â
âA lot of it is based on experiences with my mom â the first line is taken straight from her mouth.â
The song starts like this:
âI hope I can keep this in my head,
âA phone call, a letter, what you said,
âBut I will, keep smilinâ on.â
As determined as Wheelock is to keep smiling, she knows the road ahead will require more patience when her mom shifts into hospice, having worked in that area already.
âI had a lot of firsthand experiences with patients that had Alzheimerâs ... so I know what we will be facing later on down the road,â she said.
Future fundraising efforts for Wheelock include another compilation album, which she hopes to make an annual event, as well as a âBlondes vs. Brunettesâ powder-puff football game on May 4 in Madison.
Through it all, Wheelock brings her smile, as well as that abundance of patience and the positive power of her music.
âItâs amazing what music can do for people with memory problems,â she said. âIâve seen people not able to express themselves at all, but when I pull out my guitar and start singing an old, familiar song to them, they will know every word.â