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Lutherville teen brings youthful perspective to Alzheimer's battle

Jessica Hill, 16, of Lutherville, grew up spending time with her grandmother, Betty Kessler, left, and the two still enjoy days of card playing and pizza. Hill also helps care for her grandmother, who has vascular dementia. Her concern for the issues related to dementia and Alzheimer's disease prompted Hill to become the Youth Ambassador for the Alzheimer's Association. As part of that role, she'll take part in the Oct. 29 Memory Walk at Oregon Ridge Park.
Jessica Hill, 16, of Lutherville, grew up spending time with her grandmother, Betty Kessler, left, and the two still enjoy days of card playing and pizza. Hill also helps care for her grandmother, who has vascular dementia. Her concern for the issues related to dementia and Alzheimer's disease prompted Hill to become the Youth Ambassador for the Alzheimer's Association. As part of that role, she'll take part in the Oct. 29 Memory Walk at Oregon Ridge Park. (Photo by Brendan Cavanaugh)

When Jessica Hill was in preschool, her grandmother would pick her up every day after school. On Fridays, they would go to the mall and see a movie.

Now a junior at Dulaney High School, 16-year-old Jessica still spends time with her grandmother, Betty Kessler, 77, often sharing pizza and playing cards.

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"She loves pizza, and she loves to play cards," said Jessica, a Lutherville resident. "She loved to play Gin Rummy. Now we play War or Go Fish with guidance."

Hill's grandmother was diagnosed with vascular dementia about seven years ago and her memory has steadily diminished.

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She often asks the same question several times and often doesn't remember the answer, Hill said. She also will not remember recent conversations.

"She has her ups and downs," Hill said. "Some days, we call them good days, when she is happy and has some good comments. Then she loses her mind a little bit."

As a former server in the dining room at Brightwood, a senior community, Jessica met many residents with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Because of her experiences, Deborah Hill, Jessica's mother, suggested her daughter to serve as the youth ambassador for the Alzheimer's Association, a duty she'll perform at the Oct. 29 Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's at Oregon Ridge Park.

"She's been helping me care for my mother the past seven years now," said Deborah, a volunteer on the walk committee. "She's terrific with her. Watching her interact with my mom is special. She's unbelievable for a kid."

This is the first year the Alzheimer's Association has selected a youth ambassador, according to Melissa Sharlat, development manager of special events for the association.

"We wanted to put a younger face on this disease, because it affects family members and children," Sharlat said. "It's a new thing we decided to do."

Sharlat expects that like Jessica, future candidates for youth ambassador will be younger than 18 years old, local residents and have a connection to the disease. The ambassador will also have to be available for various events.

One of Jessica's first duties as ambassador will be to attend the Walk to End Alzheimer's event. This will be the third year for the walk at Oregon Ridge, and more than 1,500 people are expected to attend, Sharlat said.

"Between sponsorships and walkers, we raised $231,000 last year," she said. "There is no registration fee. We really encourage everyone to bring something. Individuals who raise more than $100 get a T-shirt."

Jessica's job will be to kick off the event at 9 a.m. and cheer people on as they pass by the halfway points of both the 1- and 2-mile walks, Sharlat said. The event will also feature a disc jockey and Halloween candy for children.

"I'll bring awareness to the program," Jessica said of her duties. "I'll meet with people and talk about the program and what we do."

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She said working with the Alzheimer's Association is a way she can honor her grandmother and lend support to help fight a condition that's close to her heart.

"My grandmother is the only grandparent I have left," Jessica said. "I like spending time with her."

The Greater Baltimore Walk to End Alzheimer's is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Oregon Ridge Park, 13401 Beaver Dam Road, Cockeysville. Registration begins at 8 a.m.; the walk starts at 9 a.m. Teams are encouraged to register at http://www.alz.org/maryland, or call 410-561-9099 or 800-272-3900.

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