Lew Watkins loved few things more in life than a day on the golf course. He and his wife, Sue, were both avid players and members of the Ranch Course at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort. The Solvang couple will enjoy that experience again, although in a wholly different way, on April 1, when they ride a cart around the Ranch Course and its sister, River Course, in a fundraising tournament for the Alzheimer's Association California Central Coast Chapter.

Lew, a former bank vice president, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease five and a half years ago. In a moment in time seared into Sue's memory, Lew received what she calls his "official diagnosis" on Oct. 10, 2011. The symptoms, she came to realize, had been evident for a year before that.

"Until you learn about the disease, you don't know what the indicators are," Sue said. "He'd withdrawn from doing some of the activities he enjoyed. He'd been in an online football pool that he really enjoyed and did well at. He stopped doing that. He didn't play golf with the guys as much. He would forget things like trips we had recently made."

Sue had a professional background in medicine. She launched a health information and cancer surveillance program, both degree and certification, at Santa Barbara City College. But as much as she knew about cancer, she knew nothing about Alzheimer's and set out immediately to change that.

"I started doing research to find out what we were facing, and the best resources I was able to get were from the Alzheimer's Association California Central Coast chapter. We went to workshops like you wouldn't believe. Lew and I both went to Help and Hope, which is for the person with Alzheimer's and their primary caregivers. I learned there was a support group up here in the Valley for caregivers. There are tools and tips I get every month. And they don't charge you anything."

Wanting to give back to the association, Sue first approached the Ranch Course's head professional, Dave Hartley, about holding a fundraising tournament. He was on board and the association was enthusiastic. Titled "A Swing to Remember," the inaugural tournament in 2015 raised $33,000. In 2016, it brought in $37,000. Sue's goal for 2017 is $40,000, which would bring the total raised in the three years to an impressive $100,000.

To that end, this year the tournament is being held on Alisal's two courses -- Ranch and River -- with 100 players on each. There are hole-in-one cars, one for each course, up for grabs, donated by Vreeland Ford and Rio Vista Chevrolet. The event includes lunch, tee prizes, a raffle and an awards reception following the tournament at the River Course Terrace. The registration deadline is March 6.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer’s is a growing epidemic affecting more than 5 million Americans today and expected to affect as many as 16 million by 2050. It is a frightening, often terrifying diagnosis, for patients and their loved ones.

According to Sue, Lew was actually relieved to get his diagnosis. He was not a patient who went into denial. He was glad to know why things he couldn't understand were happening to him. His attention then immediately turned to what his wife was facing.

"I will never forget, he was sitting in bed one morning having his coffee. He said, 'Honey, I just feel so bad. I'm not going to know when things are happening to me but I just ache for what you're going to go through.' His compassion for me, worrying about me, was much more important to him," she said.

Lest anyone feel sorry for Sue Watkins, she doesn't, and that positive attitude is what gets her through as her husband's disease progresses. She draws every day from the well of support she gets from her "big three": God, the Alzheimer's Association and her family and friends.

"Living in this Valley is one of the biggest blessings of all. This Valley is just amazing when it comes to supporting the people here," she said. "I can't tell you how much that has meant."

Sue now has a caregiver for Lew at home one day a week to give herself a needed break. She also has him on a waiting list for the new memory care unit at Atterdag Village "for when the time comes." She's a member of the auxiliary there and is comfortable with the care she knows he'll receive as the disease takes away his brain's memory for how to walk and how to eat. Still, as their world gets smaller and smaller, she feels blessed for the support and love that surrounds them.

"We had such an incredible life, living life to the fullest. You start mourning the loss of your spouse immediately when you get this diagnosis. But what I discovered was, it wasn't the end of life, it was the beginning of a new phase, and opportunities were going to be there," she said. "We just had to embrace that."

For more information and to register for the "A Swing to Remember" golf tournament, contact Alison Stanley at 892-4259, ext. 101, or astanley@alz.org.

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