For prominent Chicago couple, the sad toll of early-onset Alzheimer’s
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Yvonne Leemon Canady was ageless.
But she and her husband, Blanton Canady, spent the last 11 years of her life battling Alzheimer’s, a disease normally associated with aging.
Their fight ended on July 4 when Mrs. Canady passed away at home.
“She never wanted to give out her age. I dated her for several years before she disclosed it,” Canady told me.
He refuses to spill her secret even though he never understood why his wife was so conscious about her age.
“She was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous,” he said.
They met, by chance, in the 1990s and got married in 2003. Three years later, Mrs. Canady was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She wasn’t yet 60 when she died.
“It took [doctors] three years to diagnose her because she was so young,” her husband said. “Over the course of three years, we had [a diagnosis] of sarcoidosis and depression, and it finally came down to Alzheimer’s.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Younger-onset” Alzheimer’s — also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s — affects people younger than 65. Up to 5 percent of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s have younger-onset.
“It was pretty devastating to me,” said Canady, who owns several McDonald’s restaurants, including one at Navy Pier and another at McCormick Place
Yvonne Leemon Canady grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in a family of educators. She attended Christian Brothers College for two years.
She had two sisters, Sharmeen Hawkins and Marshia Gilmore. Both parents preceded her in death.
Before getting married, Mrs. Canady was the director of Black Enterprise magazine’s Chicago office.
Though she was married to one of the most prominent black businessmen in the city, she wasn’t the typical socialite.
“She was very family-oriented. She stuck close to home,” Canady said, describing his wife as “bubbly,” “charming” and “Ms. Personality.”
One time, pre-9/11, the couple ended up at an international airport and found she didn’t have her passport.
“She just picked out a male at the counter and threw that charm on the guy, and I couldn’t believe he let her on the plane,” Canady said.
Alzheimer’s seemed to come out of nowhere.
“She was diligent about how she ate, that’s why this disease is so surprising,” her husband said. “She exercised, and we were both members of the East Bank Club. She took great care of herself, and to this day there is no family history of Alzheimer’s.”
The disease started mildly. At first, it didn’t keep the couple from doing most of the things they enjoyed doing. In time, though, it took its toll.
“We have been to Italy and Paris, and we often went to Jamaica, her favorite place,” Canady said. “On her 55th birthday, we went to San Francisco, and that was probably around the last time we could get away.”
A longtime member of the National Black McDonald’s Operator’s Association, Canady was on the steering committee doing fund-raising for Ronald McDonald House Charities near Lurie Children’s Hospital. And he has served on several boards, including those of the Midwest Association of Sickle Cell Anemia and Northern Trust.
But people who know this couple said Canady’s obligations and social engagements never got in the way of caring for his wife.
“She was right by my side for most of the events,” Canady told me.
While the couple did not have children, Mrs. Canady was especially engaged with the Ronald McDonald House Charities, her husband said.
“She loved kids, and she would stop in the middle of the street if she saw someone with a kid,” Canady said.
Last year, he joined forces with Joe Harrington, the regional health officer at the Illinois Department of Public Health, and Melody Spann Cooper, who chairs Midway Broadcasting Corporation, to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association. They also have felt the impact of having someone close have Alzheimer’s.
“I really want people to understand how devastating this disease is,” Canady said.
“I would say one thing to anyone with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s: You need to cherish every single day because every day is different. You don’t know what the next one is going to bring. I call it a ‘hellish’ disease.
“People have to leave their jobs to take care of their loved ones. I feel truly blessed that I could take care of her financially and personally and was able to keep her at home.”