Senior Lifestyle

‘Take risks’ has always been Alzheimer’s disease expert’s personal mantra

Sharon Arkin (Sheila Wilensky)

In her 40s, Sharon Arkin had an epiphany. “I can still do the kinds of things I did when I was 18,” she realized. “I’ve never really changed very much.” Arkin, who turned 72 last month, maintains a list of activities that might stagger an 18-year-old.

She’s a clinical psychologist and Alzheimer’s disease assessment, treatment and risk specialist. She runs Bed and Bagels of Tucson and is active in Servas International, a hospitality exchange program. She hosts lodgers from around the world, and has stayed with homeowners in Turkey, Italy, Peru, India, Costa Rica and Australia.

Arkin volunteers for nonprofits including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, International Rescue Commission, and the Owl and Panther expressive arts program for refugees who’ve experienced torture and traumatic dislocation. She speaks Spanish, German and basic Hebrew.

This month, Arkin traveled in China and Israel, but first she took off on an annual adventure with one of her Israeli grandsons. She and Matan, 13, bicycled along the Maine coast and participated in an inter-generational sailing class in Boothbay Harbor, Me.

“I have an unusually high energy level. I don’t sleep a lot,” says Arkin. “My mantra has always been take risks, get hurt, heal fast.”

Growing up in Chicago, Arkin was “very culturally interested” in Judaism, but it wasn’t until years later that she became a Bat Mitzvah at age 45. After receiving her bachelor’s degree at age 22 from American University, in Washington, D.C., she married an Israeli who was a Holocaust survivor and a refugee from Kazakhstan.

From 1964 to 1980, Arkin worked for the U.S. Department of Labor’s War on Poverty, the unofficial title for legislation introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, which included Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, and work study programs that aimed to raise the living standards of the nation’s poor.

Arkin is proud to have been part of that effort. She worked full-time for the Labor Department while getting her master’s degree in counseling at the University of Maryland in 1970. “I had three kids who were born in 1963, 1966 and 1969,” says Arkin. “I had all three on a Saturday or Sunday after working on Friday, and went back to work six weeks later.”

Following her divorce in 1980, Arkin took a course at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, and eventually earned a doctor of psychology degree (Psy.D). “I had taken a lot of Adlerian parenting classes. I started [doing] democratic parenting,” she says. “I thought Freudian psychology was a lot of BS.”

While doing coursework in Chicago, Arkin lived with her mother, Bee Schultz. She began to wonder if something was wrong when “every night for dinner my mother made baked chicken legs and canned green beans. The telling thing was that she stopped conversing about world events,” notes Arkin. “My mother couldn’t compose a two-line thank-you note after my father died. She was 75.”

At first, the doctors thought Arkin’s mother was depressed, but her condition escalated to “total memory loss,” Arkin says. “She started introducing herself by her maiden name after being married 49 years. That’s how I got into Alzheimer’s treatment.”

After completing a doctoral internship working with Alzheimer’s patients at the University of California at Irvine, Arkin started a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona’s department of speech and hearing sciences in 1993. She conceived and directed “Elder Rehab by Students,” an Alzeimer’s disease intervention research and student-administered Alzheimer’s rehabilitation program funded by the National Institute on Aging. The program operated from 1996 to 2001, measuring the effects of a multi-modality intervention on language performance, rate of decline, physical fitness, and mood of persons with early to moderate stage Alzheimer’s.

The Elder Rehab program garnered a 2001 Mind Alert award of the American Society on Aging. Arkin has published numerous professional articles and editorials in journals such as Clinical Gerontologist and the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Having worked with Alzheimer’s patients for so long, Arkin is keenly aware of how quickly anyone’s health can turn. “If I end up losing my mobility and have to sit in a wheelchair I’ll study birds,” she says. “If I lose my cognitive ability I don’t want to live.”

Meanwhile, Arkin has “done just about everything. I’ve rafted the Grand Canyon, been to Machu Picchu. Oh, I want to take my grandsons to the Galapagos,” she adds. She’s even attempted memoir-writing classes but decided, “I can’t take the time to stop doing stuff and sit down writing about what I did in the past.”