Association's annual Memory Ball has drawn nine highly competitive dance couples, four well-known judges, including Maryland's first lady, and nearly 700 guests. But the star of the evening will likely be the ball honoree, Sylvia Mackey, a woman who has worked tirelessly for the association and its families.
Mackey lost her husband,
tight end and first president of the
, last summer. He waged a long battle with frontal temporal dementia, a debilitating illness with many of the same characteristics as Alzheimer's. He was 69. The couple were high school sweethearts and had been married for nearly 48 years.
For more than a decade, she bore the trials of her husband's illness and watched as he slipped away from her in what many families call the long goodbye. Many might have detached themselves after such a lengthy ordeal, but she became more involved in the Alzheimer's Association and more determined.
"There are still so many other people out there that need help," Mackey said. "Just because my husband has passed, I can't stop. There is so much more to be done, and this work will carry on his legacy."
Cass Naugle, director of the Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, called Mackey a true champion who has raised public awareness across the country through sharing her story.
"Sylvia Mackey is so well-known, respected and loved," Naugle said. "She is an inspirational speaker who adds warmth and a sense of humor to her message, and makes listeners feel that they, too, can do something in this battle. She is involved in many good causes, and as a member of our board, she has contributed in so many ways and given very generously of her time."
Mackey loves travel and flying, and continues to work a daunting schedule as an international flight attendant.
"I plan to keep working for another 10 to 15 years," she said. "My job takes me to see family and friends all over the world."
But she still makes time for speaking engagements and fundraising events like the ball this Saturday at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel. The event is expected to raise about $300,000.
Downtime between flights gives Mackey opportunities to write letters, another means to advocate for more funding, more research and a greater understanding of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Her advocacy helped lead to the establishment of the
's 88 Plan, named for the number her husband wore as a Balltimore
. It provides financial support to retired players affected by dementia.
"I just have strong feelings for those with Alzheimer's and their families," she said. "They need resources and people to turn to. Research funds can make a difference. That has been proven with other diseases, like
The more funds raised for research, the more likely a cure, she said. The Alzheimer's Association is the largest funder of research into the disease, after the federal government, Naugle said. The local chapter sponsors more than 60 support groups for those living with the disease across Maryland, which is home to more than 86,000 Alzheimer's patients. Association members are involved in training caregivers and enhancing the quality of treatment, she said.
Mackey previously served as the ball's master of ceremonies and has long thought about entering the dance competition.
"I love to dance, but I just don't have the time to train and rehearse," she said. "Maybe next year."
But Mackey said she won't put off for even a day any steps she can take against the disease.
"Just like John, I can't drop the ball," she said. "I have to keep on running with it."