'Hope is really here,' says Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation honoree Bonnie Lautenberg

Honoree Bonnie Lautenberg speaks at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s sixth annual Hope on the Horizon Palm Beach Dinner on March 15.
Honoree Bonnie Lautenberg speaks at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s sixth annual Hope on the Horizon Palm Beach Dinner on March 15.

This year’s Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation honoree is a woman who is celebrating 15 years of involvement with the organization, which for her is especially meaningful.

“There was nothing more important that I could do in my life than really be involved here,” said Palm Beacher Bonnie Lautenberg, a photographer, artist and businesswoman who was honored March 15 at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation’s sixth annual Hope on the Horizon Palm Beach Dinner.

Lautenberg took the notification that she would be honoree as a challenge. “I took it as a job,” she said. “I knew I had a job for this dinner, that I was going to make it as successful as we possibly could make it.”

This year’s event, held at the Palm Beach Country Club, raised more than $1.4 million, with an additional $1 million pledged by Lautenberg and her sisters, Lois Robbins and Carol Weisman.

Bonnie Lautenberg, from left, with fellow co-chairs Heidi McWilliams and Nancy Goodes at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation’s sixth annual Hope on the Horizon Palm Beach Dinner.
Bonnie Lautenberg, from left, with fellow co-chairs Heidi McWilliams and Nancy Goodes at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation’s sixth annual Hope on the Horizon Palm Beach Dinner.

Fellow Palm Beachers Ronald and Leonard Lauder, whose parents founded the Estée Lauder Companies, created the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation in 1988. The organization raises money to help fund research into drugs that prevent, treat and cure Alzheimer’s disease.

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“The dedication Bonnie shows to her friends, her family and her art is equaled only by the passion she gives to the causes she supports,” said Judy Glickman Lauder, the event’s co-chair, in presenting Lautenberg with the Hope on the Horizon Award. “It feels fitting to be honoring her during the ADDF’s 25th year as we look to the future. Alzheimer’s could soon be a treatable disease that will not cause any more families to suffer, and this is thanks to Bonnie’s efforts and the progress being made every day by the ADDF.”

Lautenberg began volunteering with and raising money for the foundation in 2008. Her mother, Jean Steinberg, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 85 a few years earlier. Like so many others for whom Alzheimer’s affects a parent or loved one, Lauternberg was unaware of the effects of her mother’s illness until she saw them for herself.

“She was living in Florida all winter,” said Lautenberg, who at the time lived in New Jersey and was married to N.J. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in 2013 after nearly 30 years in the Senate.

Lautenberg’s father would tell her about her mother’s changing habits: She could no longer attend social dates. She wasn’t able to go out to dinner or drive.

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“I didn’t realize what was happening,” Lautenberg said. That realization came when she picked up her mother from the airport to go to the Hamptons for a weekend with family.

“She did not know one of her nine grandchildren,” Lautenberg said of her mother. “That was my first realization that something was really wrong.”

A doctor at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center diagnosed Lautenberg’s mother with Alzheimer’s. What followed was years of back-and-forth trips, painstakingly slow progression and updates, and rounds of medications.

“That’s really why I got involved,” Lautenberg said. “My mother was a very active, fantastic woman,” she added, noting how her mother was a dancer who loved to play mah-jongg, golf and canasta.

“She was a mover and a shaker,” Lautenberg said. “She was always busy and very social. She was a great lady and raised four daughters. So to watch this decline was just horrendous and frightening.”

The Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation supports scientists around the world who are “revolutionizing the field and advancing us,” Lautenberg said.

Her recent artwork has been political, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court’s vote to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case and, more recently, a piece decrying the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States.

While she has yet to incorporate Alzheimer’s into her art, Lautenberg said it is a possibility. “My work with Alzheimer’s has been writing checks and raising money,” she said. “I haven’t gotten there yet,” she said of making of art related to the disease.

She is hopeful the researchers funded by the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation will continue to make headway in their work.

Already, the organization’s funding has helped make major discoveries, including the ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s before symptoms appear. Since its founding, the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation has awarded more than $209 million to nearly 700 Alzheimer's drug discovery and biomarker programs and clinical trials.

The research also has found new ways to prevent Alzheimer’s through diet, exercise and socialization, Lautenberg said. New drugs being tested are 30% effective at treating Alzheimer’s, she said, and researchers hope to soon hit the coveted 100% target.

“Hope is really here,” Lautenberg said. “They’re working so hard to make it happen.”

For more information, go to www.alzdiscovery.org.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Bonnie Lautenberg honored by Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation