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Wheelock became connected to Alzheimer’s when the disease claimed her grandmother shortly after high school graduation.
“I will never forget the last day I saw her,” Wheelock said. “She didn’t recognize me or anyone around her, and she needed help just turning over in bed.”
Like so many losing a loved one to a fatal disease, Wheelock learned all she could, admitting she didn’t know much at first.
“I didn’t really understand Alzheimer’s at the time, and the disease is more common than people might think,” she said.
She also didn’t 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.
“She will ask me the same question about 10 times in 10 minutes, and each time, it will be like a new question to her,” Wheelock said about her mom, 69. “I have learned to be patient, and just answer it like I’m answering it new each time.”
Growing up on a farm didn’t make Wheelock an advocate for Alzheimer’s. But Wheelock’s father, Dale, believes it didn’t hurt either.
“I like to think she gets her drive from growing up on a farm,” Dale Wheelock said. “She could easily have gotten a regular job but chose to do this.”
Wheelock’s 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: “It was really hard to hear, but it has also spurred me to become an advocate.
“I started attending support groups through the Alzheimer’s Association, fundraising and taking educational classes on the disease.”
She’s 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.
“She brings a fresh, young voice to the old classics as well as performing some newer songs and even her own songs,” Comer said. “My residents look forward to her coming every month to kick off our birthday party and welcoming social on the first Friday each month.”
It’s Wheelock’s 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 Alzheimer’s. She reached out to area artists and the project was complete in just about a month.
The title of the album, “Smilin’ On,” 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.
“He asked if he could write a song specifically for the album. I told him that I wanted to do the same thing,” Wheelock said. “So we collaborated and came up with the song ‘Smilin’ On.’
“A lot of it is based on experiences with my mom — the first line is taken straight from her mouth.”
The song starts like this:
“I hope I can keep this in my head,
“A phone call, a letter, what you said,
“But I will, keep smilin’ on.”
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.
“I had a lot of firsthand experiences with patients that had Alzheimer’s ... so I know what we will be facing later on down the road,” she said.
Future fundraising efforts for Wheelock include another compilation album, which she hopes to make an annual event, as well as a “Blondes vs. Brunettes” 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.
“It’s amazing what music can do for people with memory problems,” she said. “I’ve 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.”