Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR READERS: Twenty-two years ago today, Oct. 22, 1980, my mother, Pauline Phillips, published a letter in her column from a woman signed "Desperate." Desperate's 60-year-old husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She asked if Mother had ever heard of it, and how other spouses of Alzheimer's patients coped with it.

Mother stated in her reply that approximately 1 million people had Alzheimer's disease, and that families and friends of Alzheimer's sufferers had banded together to form an association to provide support, develop and disseminate helpful information and to encourage much-needed research to fight the disease.

With that column, a little-known disease received international attention. Within weeks, the Alzheimer's Association received more than 25,000 pieces of mail requesting information, volunteering services and donating money.

Over the years, Mother and I devoted a steady stream of columns to raising awareness of Alzheimer's disease, publicizing the association's programs and services, and supporting them financially. We watched with satisfaction as they grew into the largest private funder of Alzheimer research and the premier source of information and support for everyone touched by the disease.

How ironic that this disease should eventually strike my own dear mother -- a woman known for her sharp intellect and quick wit. Her diagnosis reinforces our sense of stewardship in the success of the Alzheimer's Association.

Research offers the only hope of discovering the answer to Alzheimer's disease. Through the association's efforts, federal funding for Alzheimer's research has grown from $13 million in 1980 to almost $600 million today. The association's goal is to increase that commitment to $1 billion. Unless a cure is found, an estimated 14 million more people will have this disease by the year 2050.

I will work more closely than ever with the Alzheimer's Association to achieve our shared goals -- to eliminate this thief of the mind through research, and to enhance the quality of life for individuals, caregivers and families like our own.

If you or someone you love needs the Alzheimer's Association's help -- or wants to join this cause -- call (800) 272-3900. Someone will be there to receive your call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or visit the Alzheimer's Association online at

DEAR ABBY: In July of last year, my niece left her 1-month-old daughter with me, saying it would be for only a week. It is now well over a year later, and I am still taking care of her.

The baby's mother has seen her only three times in the year she's been with me. I've grown to love this little girl and think her mother's absence is unfair to her.

I have made the decision to try to gain legal custody of the child. Abby, do you think I'm wrong in doing so? -- LOVING AUNT IN THE BRONX

DEAR LOVING AUNT: Not at all. The child has been abandoned in your custody. By all means, consult a lawyer as soon as possible. It will be better for the child, and for you. Since you are acting as a parent, you should have the legal authority in case it becomes necessary.

For everything you need to know about wedding planning, order "How to Have a Lovely Wedding." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby, Wedding Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600