Each month, we’re featuring an advocate who engages with policymakers to ensure priorities that improve the lives of people impacted by Alzheimer’s and all other dementia remain top-of-mind in Congress.
When Dean Brenner was 5 years old, his mom Marilyn Brenner ran for office in a small town of 17,000 people in New Jersey. She knocked on every door in every community, becoming the first woman in the town’s history to run and to be elected to its council. Throughout her years as an elected official and later as a teacher, Marilyn always encouraged Dean, his two brothers and countless others in their community to make a difference. While navigating his mom’s Alzheimer’s journey following her diagnosis in 2015, Dean Brenner discovered his own way to make a difference — becoming involved in Alzheimer’s advocacy and the AIM Leadership Society.
From the very beginning of her political career, Marilyn demonstrated her passion and commitment to helping her community. During her first campaign, she was horrified to learn that part of the town did not have sidewalks. With children walking to school on these streets, Marilyn vowed to take action if elected. Shortly after being elected, she became the head of the Roads Committee and personally made sure the sidewalks were built. “She was small but had a very big personality,” said Dean.
“I talked to my mom every Sunday from the time I left to go to college in 1978,” said Dean. “Those conversations used to be an hour long, filled with all kinds of political stuff and what was going on in our lives.” But in 2015, Dean started to notice some changes in her personality and memory.
“Our conversations had become very short, maybe a couple minutes,” said Dean. “She was living by herself in the same house that we moved into in 1963. She was retired, so she was not having as much contact with people. And I just thought it was a normal part of aging.”
One day in 2015, Dean drove from his home in Washington, D.C. to visit his mom. They had lunch at the local diner, where she always liked to go. “She let it slip that she'd had a doctor's appointment. The doctor wanted her to go see a specialist, but she canceled the appointment,” said Dean.
After a difficult back and forth with an evasive Marilyn, Dean eventually found out his mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“Nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. She didn’t pay the utility bills, drove with an expired driver’s license, you name [it].” He called different organizations in the community, trying to find resources to help care for his mother. “I didn’t know what to do,” said Dean.
During this research, Dean found the Alzheimer’s Association and called the New Jersey chapter. “I talked to a social worker, a wonderful person named Julie. Julie listened to my story, from a total stranger, and she said, ‘Well, I think what you might want to do here is hire a care manager. I learned that it wasn’t just about getting an aide for my mom. It was really a comprehensive way to care for her,” said Dean.
“That conversation was absolutely transformational,” said Dean. “For the rest of my mom’s life, because of Julie, we had a care manager. Most people can’t employ a care manager, so we were beyond fortunate.”
That call in 2015 was the extent of Dean’s interaction with the Alzheimer’s Association until 2018. “One night, I was up late at night worrying about what was going to happen with her,” said Dean. “I googled Alzheimer’s Association, wondering if they do anything in Washington, D.C., and I found out about AIM and the AIM Advocacy Forum.”
Advocacy was a natural fit for Dean. For 18 years, he worked as a lawyer advocating on public policy issues involving telecommunications. “So I signed up for the Forum, because it’s like two miles from my house,” said Dean. “I went to the AIM Advocacy Forum for the first time in March 2018.”
“Instantly, I was welcome. I found that I wasn't alone in this whole saga,” said Dean. “I didn’t know anyone there …but I just found my people. It was very emotional, because my mom was still going through everything. Half the time I was thinking about her and her situation, why this had happened, and all of it.”
“But on the other hand, it was very empowering, because I'm not a neuroscientist. I can’t invent the pill for her to take. But talking to a member of Congress? Yeah, I could do that,” said Dean.
During the Forum, Dean heard about the AIM Leadership Society and an AIMPAC contribution match being sponsored by member Lynda Jodsaas. Soon after his first contribution, he increased his impact and joined the AIM Leadership Society through support of an allied event AIMPAC hosted for Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ-06).
“I went to this dinner thinking there were going to be like a hundred people there. But I get there and start talking to Rep. Frank Pallone about [New Jersey] politics from the 1960s.” Since then, Dean has attended numerous events as a member of the Leadership Society for different members of Congress to discuss and advance Alzheimer’s policy priorities.
“Why did my mom get Alzheimer’s? I will never know,” said Dean. “But this is something where I feel like I can make a difference, working together with so many great people who feel the same way.”
“When my mom passed away, she had kept a bunch of her speeches. They were basically all identical in that the message to the kids at any age was always: make a difference,” said Dean. “This is what I can do. Other people have other talents, but by working with great people on issues that I had no idea about even just a few years ago, I could help make a difference.”