My name is Kuntal Joisher and I am about to climb Mt. Everest. Yes, I know hundreds of people attempt to summit the highest point in the world every year, but I'd like to think my journey is special. I'm climbing in honor of my father, who has been living with Lewy Body dementia (a form of dementia that shares degenerative characteristics with both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) for over a decade. Six years ago, I became his primary caregiver when the disease finally stole the last of his independence. After experiencing the effects of the illness on my father, and the rest of our family, I decided to use my journey to Everest as a platform to raise awareness for this crippling disease.
Growing up, it's impossible for a child to imagine his or her parents ever growing elderly or falling ill. It's typical of a child to instead believe that his or her parents will always be around, lending support to their big and lofty dreams, whether that means blasting off to the moon, rising to rock star fame, or even saving lives in an emergency room. I was no exception, even though most wide-eyed kids don't necessarily dream of climbing the tallest mountain in the world. Then again, most children don't grow up taking vacations to the Himalayan Mountains either.
How I Found Everest
Born in Kharagpur, a small town in the state of West Bengal in India, my childhood was spent playing and watching cricket, flying kites, spending weekends in the hill-stations of Lonavala or Mahabaleshwar, and vacationing to the Himalayas. I come from a Kutchi-Gujarati family, a group known for their business acumen, a quality with which I have always struggled to identify. Instead of cultivating business, my passions lie in veganism, the outdoors, wilderness, and mountaineering -- lifestyle choices that most Gujarati's don't typically make.
As a teenager in India, I watched a PBS NOVA documentary about Everest and was captivated by the mountain. At the time, I had no real intentions to take up mountaineering or climbing as a passion. But those documentary images of the scary Khumbu icefall and the magnificent 3,000-foot ice-wall of Lhotse Face remained in my subconscious. Then, one day in 2008 on a chance trip to the Himalayas with my wife, we hiked to the summit of a small peak called Hatu Peak. That was it. I realized that mountains were my calling and, since that day, I haven't looked back.
Climbing For A Cause
In 2001, my dad was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia at the young age of 50. Over the past few years, my dad's condition has deteriorated to a point where he doesn't even remember or recognize me, although I moved back to Mumbai after living in Los Angeles for several years, to become his primary caretaker. It's been a very emotional journey over the past few years to see him worsen by the day. Unfortunately, dementia, like its neurocognitive cousin Alzheimer's, is a disease without a cure.
However, there are still voices being heard. This disease is being fought on every level. In fact, Seth Rogen recently went before the Senate committee regarding an education campaign aimed at changing the stigma associated with the debilitating disease in support of his mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer's. It's no surprise that celebrities are using their notoriety as a vehicle for a cause that has touched so many lives.
The statistics are staggering. There are currently five million Americans living with the disease, with a new diagnosis every 67 seconds. Last year alone, 15.5 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care valued at more than $220 billion, according to the Alzheimer's Association. By 2050, the total costs of care for Americans age 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease will increase five-fold, from $172 billion to $1.08 trillion per year.
That's why I am climbing Everest. I want to use my journey as a way to raise awareness. Awareness not only for research but also for the caretakers, like my wife and I, who spend every day learning more about the disease and its implications with every bath, feeding, and gentle reminder that we are family.
And while caring for my father has been the most emotionally challenging experience so far, I'm about to embark on the most physically demanding trial of my life by climbing Mt. Everest. I invite you to join me here as I document my journey to Everest and my mission to raise awareness for dementia. I am unsure of the challenges I am about to face, but look forward to sharing my experiences from the top of the world.
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