Longtime Routt County resident dies from early-onset Alzheimer’s at 61 | SteamboatToday.com

Longtime Routt County resident dies from early-onset Alzheimer’s at 61

Nicole Inglis

Steamboat Springs High School graduate Julie Keenan, right, took her mother, Ruthie Erickson, camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park in 2010, eight years after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She died Oct. 3.

Memorial service

A celebration of Ruthie Erickson's life is at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Erickson home in Strawberry Park. Guests are asked to bring a dish to share and to donate to the Alzheimer's Association in Ruthie's honor. For more information, call Tracey at 970-846-7667

— There are some things the mind cannot let go.

Even though Ruthie Erickson slowly had been succumbing to the painful decline of early-onset Alzheimer's for eight years, she was knitting scarves up until April of this year. It was a soothing activity to her as the rest of her world shrank.

And even in the three weeks before she died Oct. 3, she never forgot the face of her daughter, Julie Keenan, or her husband, Rick Erickson.

"She told both of us she loved us, and she would smile and be happy," Keenan said. "She had a lot of clarity those last few weeks, and we had a lot of amazing moments."

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Erickson, a 30-year Routt County resident, died at a nursing home in Colorado Springs at age 61.

Friends and family will host a celebration of her life at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Erickson's home in Strawberry Park, and they are asking for donations to the Alzheimer's Association in her name instead of flowers.

Keenan called her mother a "shining star," a beacon of positivity and poise even though she was aware of the disease that caused her to forget how to drive and eventually how to eat.

"She was a joy and thoughtful and so kind to everyone she met," Keenan said. "Throughout this whole process, she took it with grace. She knew that sometimes you can't change things, and you have to just go with it."

A 'painful, slow' disease

According to the Mayo Clinic, only about 5 percent of the 5 million current Alzheimer's cases occur in those younger than 65. Erickson's symptoms began in her early 50s.

Keenan was in high school and worked with her mother at Pink, a boutique near Steamboat Ski Area that was a passion project for the close-knit mother-daughter pair. Erickson bought the business after a 20-year career as a dental hygienist at Pine Grove Dental.

Erickson began to have trouble with bookkeeping and numbers. She forgot names and became confused. They all knew what was going to come next because Erickson's mother had suffered from Alzhiemer's, as well.

"It's a painful, slow thing to watch," Keenan said. "To see your mentor and your inspiration not being able to take care of herself. It was hard, as a daughter, just seeing your everything fading in front of you."

Erickson had lived in the Yampa Valley for 20 years already, and the community she had supported around her for decades was there for her in return.

"This community and this valley was where her heart was," Keenan said.

Erickson always loved a good party (her favorite saying was "party down"), so it became a tradition that a group of her friends calling themselves "Ruthie's Calendar Girls" would throw a soiree filled with wine and laughter. During the event, they would sign up for a different day to drive her around town and keep her entertained.

Sundays were Tracey Lucas' day.

Lucas, co-owner of the Gallery Salon, met Erickson at Old Town Hot Springs 27 years ago. They raised their children together and traveled everywhere from the Front Range to the south of France

After Erickson's 2002 diagnosis, their friendship remained the same in many ways.

On Sundays, the pair would go to a movie, lunch or hike.

"That girl went out to lunch more than anyone in Steamboat," Lucas laughed, adding that waitresses remembered her orders.

Lucas said her friend's mental age was like that of a 3-year-old near the end, and not remembering things sometimes frustrated Erickson. But she never became outwardly angry. She always remembered that Lucas was her best friend.

"They don't have a past or a future, and they live in the day, which is maybe good," Lucas said.

She still had the body of the dancer, yogini and figure skater she had always been; it was only her mind that was deteriorating fast.

In April of this year, she entered a paranoid, hallucinatory stage and had to be moved into the Doak Walker Care Center and then to an Alzheimer's nursing home called Namaste in Colorado Springs.

A lasting legacy

Keenan is a lot like her mother.

She's been doing yoga since she was in Erickson's belly, and she got her musical ear from her mother's piano playing. She inherited a love of fashionable style and dancing.

Now an aspiring pop musician living in Los Angeles, Keenan has two main ambitions in life.

"My future is going to be about making a music career and keeping on trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's," she said. "It was so awful seeing my mom go through this. It rips them of all their dignity."

She said she did an Alzheimer's fundraising walk in Colorado Springs in early September and raised $3,600. Because Steamboat doesn't have an event for the disease, she said she hopes to launch one next fall to help raise funds and awareness for the bizarre and heartbreaking affliction.

The family donated Erickson's brain for Alzheimer's research.

Lucas said because so many people knew her in Steamboat, the legacy of her disease will live on, as will her warm smile and the memories of her Ya-Ya Sisterhood parties.

"She brought attention to something that needs to be brought attention to," Lucas said. "We all need to pull together for people that aren't well, even though it's scary to us."

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com.

Memorial service

A celebration of Ruthie Erickson’s life is at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Erickson home in Strawberry Park. Guests are asked to bring a dish to share and to donate to the Alzheimer’s Association in Ruthie’s honor. For more information, call Tracey at 970-846-7667

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