Rebecca Chopp: Alzheimer’s Association National Early-Stage Advisor
Rebecca Chopp, 71, was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) due to Alzheimer’s disease in 2019.
Rebecca was raised in Kansas. A first-generation college student, she graduated from Kansas Wesleyan in 1974 with B.A. degrees in Speech and Religion. She subsequently earned a M.A. degree in Divinity from St. Paul School of Theology and a Ph.D. from University of Chicago. During her distinguished academic career, Rebecca has held professorships and high-level appointments, including serving as president of Colgate and Swarthmore Colleges and as chancellor of the University of Denver, prior to her retirement in 2019. She is widely published author and speaker.
Rebecca said changes in sleeping patterns were the first indication something was not right with her health. During her hectic academic career, she would typically sleep 4-5 hours a night, but suddenly that became 9-10 hours per night. She also began experiencing greater anxiety and found herself dreading university-related social events, which were routine in her role as chancellor.
Ironically, it was a trip to her physician’s office for a routine physical that yielded a final warning sign that led to her diagnosis. She got lost on the way there. When she finally arrived, she shared the news with her doctor, who, then, conducted a simple memory test.
“Both of us were surprised when she came back with the results and said ‘Well, you didn’t exactly pass.’”
That doctor referred her to a memory clinic, where her neuropsych test results were inconclusive. An MRI and PET scan followed, and Rebecca was diagnosed with MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis came as a shock even though her mother and both grandmothers died of Alzheimer’s.
“For the longest time I had been able to stave off concerns about getting Alzheimer’s disease despite my family history,” Rebecca said. “I had convinced myself that I was doing everything better than my family members who died from Alzheimer’s. I ate right, handled my mental health and took care of myself.”
Rebecca’s initial shock and sadness was compounded by a neurologist who provided little information or guidance following her diagnosis. “The first neurologist I saw was very abrupt and told me in three years I would not be able to button my own shirts,” Rebecca recalled. She found a new neurologist, who confirmed the diagnosis, but told her some people live many years with the disease to live with joy. Her doctor also gave her ideas about how to live a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Doctors advised that her grueling work schedule was too stressful and no longer possible. Rebecca resigned, but at the time had reservations about saying the word “Alzheimer’s” because of stigma, and instead told her colleagues and friends that her retirement was due to a complex neurological condition.
For the next 18 month, Rebecca struggled with Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She and her husband, Fred, soon moved into a continuum care community, anticipating future care needs. They soon realized, however, the community provided more support then they needed, so they have since moved back to a traditional home. The couple also did legal and financial planning and Rebecca monitors her driving abilities closely, with the intention to let others drive her soon.
Today, Rebecca says she is “balancing planning for the future with living for the moment.” For the first time in her life, she is painting and pursuing other creative activities. She serves on the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado chapter. She even found time to adopt a puppy named Buddy, who accompanies her on walks and helps Rebecca stay calm.
“For the most part, I live with joy,” Rebecca said. “I have time to spend with my husband, who patiently put up with me working 14-16 hour days! I spend time with my family and friends. I exercise daily and eat healthier than ever before. I feel healthy.”
As a member of the 2023-2024 National Early-Stage Advisory Group, Rebecca wants to help others live their best lives following an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis.
“We all carry stigma following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I know I did,” Rebecca said. “But I have learned there is so much you can still do. It’s really important to educate yourself about the disease and its progression. Get help and support from others and refuse to surrender. And don’t forget to pay forward the love you receive and will receive from your caregivers.”
Rebecca and her husband Fred live in Broomfield, Colorado. They share three sons.