Laguna Beach family takes unique approach to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease

Andrew and Laura Hollinshead at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
Andrew and Laura Hollinshead at the Watermark Laguna Niguel. Andrew was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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An 11-year-old dog named Banzai scampers across the floors at the Watermark Laguna Niguel retirement community.

This kind of energy isn’t always so obvious in such an environment.

Then again, Andrew Hollinshead and his wife, Laura, the mutt’s owners, aren’t your typical retirement community residents.

Andrew and Laura left their Laguna Beach home to move into the facility in January. It may have been a surprising step to some, but it ultimately made sense to them.


Andrew was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2019, at the age of 49.

“I knew some of the signals,” he said. “The first signal was that I couldn’t do a tip on a bill.”

Executive Director Chris Tharp with Andrew and Laura Hollinshead, from left, at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laura saw other signs from her husband of nearly 25 years. Their daughter Sarah, in high school at the time, told Laura that Andrew had told her she could go out. Andrew had no recollection of that.

Then there was the time when he decided to cut cables outside of their house. In another instance, she came home and a random person was sitting in the living room.

“He decided to clean the stove and got something that was very strong, and ended up taking all of the numbers off our stove,” Laura Hollinshead said. “Luckily it was gas and you can see the flame, but there were these things that were happening that I had to figure out how to deal with, keeping him safe.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Assn., about 6.2 million Americans 65 and older were living with Alzheimer’s in 2021. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, diagnosed before that age, accounted for about 5% to 10% of those cases.

Andrew Hollinshead got a terminal diagnosis and was forced to quit his job at Capital Group in Irvine. He began seeing Dr. Seyed Sajjadi, a neurologist at UC Irvine.

“There’s seven different degrees of Alzheimer’s, but UCI only breaks it down into three,” said Laura Hollinshead. “Based on his cognitive tests and where he was heading, he was at a Level 2, which pushed him out of qualification for any drugs because he’s gone past the window.”

She thought about “Alzheimer’s proofing” their home. But late last year, the family met with Watermark Laguna Niguel executive director Chris Tharp.

Andrew and Laura Hollinshead with their dog, Banzai, at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
Andrew and Laura Hollinshead with their dog, Banzai, at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We were talking to Dr. Sajjadi, and he said it was good idea to look at places for Andrew to eventually live in,” Laura Hollinshead said. “But when we came here and met with Chris, he said, ‘Have you thought about both of you living here?’ With everything that was going on, I thought that it might be a really good situation for both of us. We’re both safe.”

They moved into a unit at Watermark in January, soon after the facility opened. The benefits are numerous. They fully enjoy their time together, they have programs tailored for Andrew’s needs, and he is getting familiar with the community to help make a smoother transition into memory care when the time comes.

Andrew, now 55, still golfs. In fact, he did well at the recent Laguna Niguel Chamber of Commerce golf tournament, though his memory issues mean he now needs assistance in selecting the right clubs.

He said he also takes Banzai for plenty of walks and arranges flowers with the ladies of the community. Andrew, who is British, even started a tea class at Landmark in March.

As importantly, Andrew has emotional support when Laura, a chief creative officer for a manufacturing company, has to go away on business trips.

“What I dialed in on was, let’s remove limitations and change them out for possibilities,” Tharp said. “No longer are you worried about Andrew, and [Laura] can focus on her life. She’s a successful professional, and we’re taking the burden of care and what are you going to have for dinner? Andrew now is just a big part of the social dynamic here.”

Their house in Laguna Beach is still being used. Sarah and Andrew’s stepson, Bryan, both live there, at least for now. Bryan is getting married in Iceland in August, and Andrew and Laura will both be attending.

Andrew and Laura Hollinshead of Laguna Beach answer questions during an interview at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
Andrew and Laura Hollinshead of Laguna Beach answer questions during an interview at the Watermark Laguna Niguel.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laura believes this solution, though unusual, has been paying off.

“He’s doing better here than at home because there’s a schedule and a routine,” she said, adding that her husband’s long-term memory remains great but he doesn’t remember conversations from minutes ago. “His moments of clarity are less. We have the same conversations over and over again, he loses track of time and days and stuff. But they’re really good here. They’ll knock on the door of our room and come and get him for exercise, so that he doesn’t have to always try to be managing things. I just think the consistency and the care are helping us to kind of keep this at bay.”

Laura is in an early-onset Alzheimer’s support group, and the couple has gone to a few events put on by comedian Seth Rogen, whose mother-in-law experienced early-onset Alzheimer’s in her 50s. They’ve also been twice been asked by Dr. Sajjadi to speak to medical students at UC Irvine.

As for Andrew, he remains engaged, laughing often.

“He’s a super-happy guy,” Laura said, grasping her husband’s hand. “That’s been one of the biggest blessings.”

Andrew laughed again.

“Well, I’m on meds,” he said.