What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

By Beth Gard Beth Gard is wife to Alan and mom to Gabe, Alijah, and Dalaney and leads Medical Outreach for the Down Syndrome Alliance of the Midlands. She is also Alan Gard’s caddie as he completes the Hundred Hole Hike to benefit LuMind RDS Foundation and Down syndrome cognition research. Beth_Alijah Gard

What do you want to be when you grow up?  We have all been asked this question. We’re asked it as soon as we can speak and that’s usually as a toddler. And of course a toddler has an answer for that question!   This question is easy for our oldest son, Gabe. Since he could talk he has wanted to be a train engineer. He’s been obsessed with trains since he was a baby and right now he is equally obsessed with Legos.  Alan and I joke that he is our master builder train engineer. Alijah is starting to say words now (that’s very exciting for all of us). He can’t tell us yet what he wants to be, but based on his interests he wants to drive a backhoe loader or be a ball player. When you ask Gabe “whom” he wants to be when he grows up, he wants to be a dad. I assume that’s because he has an excellent role model for a dad. I wonder “whom” Alijah will want to be when he grows up…

As a parent of a child with special needs it’s hard not to think about your child’s future. When we first found out that Alijah had Down syndrome we were worried about everything, but we were particularly concerned about his future. From day one we were committed to giving him everything he needed and to make sure we had the same expectations for him that we had for Gabe. We want him to go to school, to go to college, to fall in love and most of all to lead a fulfilling life. But, for all of these milestones to occur for Alijah we need to advocate for him in all areas of his life. I do tend to focus on Alijah’s future probably more than I do on my other children’s futures. Since Alijah was three months old my main concern has been about school. Anyone close to me will tell you that I feel extreme stress when I think about school. It doesn’t matter if it is preschool or elementary school. I feel sick at times trying to make sure that we make the right decisions for Alijah. But in April, I attended one of our local Down syndrome organizations’ educational presentations by Dr. William Mobley, a neuroscientist from the University of California San Diego, a LuMind RDS funded researcher. Dr. Mobley came to speak to us about the links between Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. He began by providing evidence that the brains of people with DS don’t function like those of typical people. This information wasn’t surprising since I see this everyday when Alijah is processing information or responds to requests and directions. Dr. Mobley also provided us with the evidence that the plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s begin to develop at age 40 in individuals with DS. I also knew this, however, hearing it and seeing the data hit me hard. Maybe it was because I was a month away from turning 41. Maybe it was because it was a long day with Alijah and Dalaney (as most days are right now). Maybe it was a combination of a lot of things. I thought, “I’m 40 and for the most part I still feel like I am in my 20s.  I tend to forget things from time to time, but who doesn’t?” Alijah Gard Beth Gard Alan Gard Hundred Hole Hike Down syndrome researchI started to wonder what Alijah will feel like when he is my age. What will his cognitive level be at 40?  And then the thoughts and scenarios started to snowball as they tend to do when something negative pops into my head. Then I started to think about who is going to take care of Alijah when he starts to experience this decline?  God willing, I’ll still be on earth, however I will also be nearing 80. I discussed this with a friend and she joked we would both be in the old folks home, demented together.  I laughed because I saw some humor in it (sometimes you just have to find the humor in even the most sad situations). Unfortunately, despite the jokes and lightheartedness that can be made of situations, this could happen. These thoughts have never occurred to me when I think about Gabe and our youngest child, Dalaney, when they reach 40.  I assume Gabe and Dalaney will be in the prime of their lives established in their careers, possibly married and/or raising children, hopefully happy and healthy. I wish sometimes these thoughts about Alijah would never come to me. I wish I had blinders on to the reality of what life could be for Alijah as things stand now.  I don’t want to imagine my son who is smart, fun, stubborn and nothing short of happy even when he is having what is his worst day not living a fulfilling life once he reaches middle age. The need for cognition research in individuals with DS is so important, not only to help improve their memory and learning ability while they are young, but also to develop drugs to help delay or even cure Alzheimer’s. Even though DS is one of the most common genetic conditions, it is one of the least funded for research. Organizations such as LuMind RDS and others are paving the way to raise funds for research and awareness that DS research is not only a necessity for the DS population, but the general population as well. As Alan embarks on his third hike I hope that you will consider donating to his team in the Hundred Hole Hike or perhaps start your own team and raise funds for research. Our cause isn’t just about raising awareness it’s about advocating for people with DS to make sure that research is being done to improve their cognitive quality of life. I look forward to the possibilities that cognitive research advances can offer to Alijah and others with DS to help them achieve their goals and to lead fulfilling lives. I am anxious to hear what Alijah wants to be when he grows up and helping him live out his dreams!