When Catherine Elizabeth Popp received an early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis, she and her partner Anthony Copeland-Parker were not about to let it stop them from chasing their dreams. The duo has traveled to 82 countries and run marathons on all seven continents. A new memoir tells their story.
Anthony Copeland-Parker and his partner Catherine Elizabeth Popp have long had a passion for traveling and endurance running. And they weren’t about to let Popp’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s nor Copeland-Parker’s heart-valve replacement surgery in 2014 trip them up. Following Popp’s diagnosis at age 53, the couple retired, sold their house and embarked on a journey of running in marathons and half-marathons around the globe.
Following the June 2021 release of Copeland-Parker’s memoir Running All Over the World: Our Race Against Early-Onset Alzheimer’s, Being Patient sat down with the author for a conversation about traveling, marathons, and living life to the fullest as part of our LiveTalk series.
Being Patient: What inspired you to write the book Running All Over the World: Our Race Against Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?
Anthony Copeland-Parker: I started writing a blog, runningwithcat.com, when we started traveling about seven years ago. I was using that to try to have memories for both Catherine and I of what we did. I also wanted to inspire others to look at the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s a little bit differently … I decided to combine her passion for running and our love for travel.
Then also, [given] the fact that we would be together 24/7, I could see any nuances or changes to be able to better compensate for them at the time.
“The disease is a challenge enough, but
if you look outside of it, there’s going to
be many, many good years that you two can do
things together. As opposed to it being a
death sentence, it’s a life lesson”
We did not set out to be on the road for this long. We were basically looking for someplace else to live. However, we were like Goldilocks and nothing was quite right. There was always another race on the horizon so we just kept continuing traveling, and this is where we are. I took the blog — all that information and pictures — and put the book together … It’s something that I wanted us to be able to cherish just driving down a road and listening to someone (audiobook) tell us the stories about some of the places we’ve been. Catherine’s smiling and laughing while she’s listening to it.
Being Patient: Catherine was working for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) when she began experiencing the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Can you share with us how these symptoms affected her?
Copeland-Parker: In her job, she had her routine. She was using sticky notes and things of this nature to compensate for what was going on.
She got a new boss who wanted to change things around and wanted things done his way. Her routine was out the window and then it became a little bit more evident. Then of course, stress came up.
I noticed that instead of taking 15, 20 minutes of [doing] a simple task of balancing a checkbook, it took almost all day. I mentioned to her that there was a problem. When [her] job performance started waning, we wanted to have documentation so that we could protect her. We went to a neurologist, and that’s when [the doctors] were able to go through all the testing and come back with the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s or like condition … She was 53 when she got diagnosed.
Being Patient: Around the time that she received her diagnosis, you also received a heart-valve replacement. Can you tell us about that experience?
Copeland-Parker: Being a pilot, you get a routine physical every six months. My doctor at that point mentioned to me that I had a heart murmur. Some can be pretty much benign but mine was the case that the aortic valve was not closing all the way and blood was regurgitating.
We monitored that for two years and then we decided to go ahead and have open heart surgery. I had that around the same time as her diagnosis, and I had my aortic valve replaced with the artificial valve. That led me to [think], ‘Maybe it’ll be a good idea for me to go ahead and retire. I’ll be able to help take care of her and we could continue doing our races.’ As a matter of fact, I did a marathon in Berlin three months after I had an open heart surgery.
Being Patient: What ultimately led you and Catherine to decide to travel across the world after retiring?
Copeland-Parker: I’m the type of person to research everything and look at alternatives, looking for a different way to approach different situations. [I had to] take care of her, but also I needed to take care of myself.
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I love to travel … I love managing [our travel], setting up where we’re going to eat, what flights we should catch, what hotels we should stay at. That keeps me going, because it’s a partnership. I have to be doing things that I love to do. So that’s how it’s a mutual benefit for both of us.
Being Patient: Traveling can be a challenge for people living with dementia. How does Catherine manage it?
Copeland-Parker: She does really well … How I look at it is: They ask you to do brain games, crossword puzzles, things of this nature to keep your brain going. I joke with her and say that I’m always moving her cheese around. She has to navigate where the bathroom is, where we are going to eat, going through security, getting on the airplane, getting off the airplane. But she does really fine.
“Find your passion, something
that both of you love to do. Set
goals and challenges for yourself.”
She’s traveled all of her life, so this is something that she’s used to doing. Also, she knows that we’re going to go someplace that’s exciting, and that she’s probably going to see some people that she hadn’t seen before.
Being Patient: What countries and continents have the two of you travelled to since retiring?
Copeland-Parker: We’ve visited 82 different countries. We’ve run at least a half-marathon in 35 countries. We’ve run at least a half-marathon in all seven continents. Catherine and I have both done the six major marathons: Three in Europe and three in the United States. We’re always setting goals for ourselves to keep the challenge going.
Being Patient: What about your travels here in the U.S.?
Copeland-Parker: Catherine had a goal to run a marathon in all 50 states, so we accomplished that last year. Now we’re going back around and we’re doing a half-marathon in all 50 states.
Being Patient: Any words of advice for caregivers and people living with dementia about navigating this journey?
Copeland-Parker: Find your passion, something that both of you love to do. Set goals and challenges for yourself. The disease is a challenge enough, but if you look outside of it, there’s going to be many, many good years that you two can do things together. As opposed to it being a death sentence, it’s a life lesson.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Contact Nicholas Chan at email@example.com