Feature

Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD, knew she had a problem when she got lost in the building where she'd taught for many years. At the prompting of her psychology department colleagues, she saw a neuropsychologist, who confirmed her worst fears: She had Alzheimer's disease.

That diagnosis in 2011 devastated Brehm, the former chancellor of Indiana University and 2007 APA president. "I was very depressed," says Brehm, now 68 and retired from her teaching career in Bloomington. "It was awful."

Brehm had good reason to be afraid. She had watched her own mother struggle between the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1978 and her death five years later at age 68.

In fact, her mother's mix of depression and Alzheimer's — and the poorly coordinated care she received from her physicians — prompted one of Brehm's major initiatives as APA president: the Presidential Task Force on Integrated Health Care for an Aging Population.

The task force's work resulted in the Blueprint for Change: Achieving Integrated Health Care for an Aging Population. The report, which APA's Council of Representatives adopted as APA policy in 2008, was one of APA's earliest efforts to promote integrated models of health care, says Deborah A. DiGilio, director of APA's Office on Aging.

Times have changed since Brehm's mother received her diagnosis. And Brehm's attitude has changed since receiving her own.

Although Brehm can no longer drive and needs help from friends and a home-care service with such tasks as balancing her checkbook, she wants people to know you can still have a good life with Alzheimer's.

"I understand that this is a progressive disease, but right now I think I'm in pretty good shape," she says.

That discovery has prompted Brehm to speak out as a way of dispelling the stigma around the disease and educating the public that an Alzheimer's diagnosis isn't the end of the world. She spoke publicly about her illness at a Walk to End Alzheimer's event in Bloomington in 2013 and is now active in the Alzheimer's Association community.

At heart, she says, she's still a teacher.

Antonette Zeiss, PhD, who co-chaired Brehm's presidential task force, agrees. She sees Brehm's new role as a new incarnation of her former role as an educator.

"Sharon is continuing to educate psychologists about the challenges older adults face," says Zeiss. "She is bravely using her experience with Alzheimer's disease to destigmatize this illness and motivate all of us to learn more and do more to offer effective, evidence-based integrated care."

— Rebecca A. Clay