Randi Firestone carries on her mother’s legacy with the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Tongva Park

By Gary Walker

Randi Firestone knew something was wrong with her mother when she opened the refrigerator and saw it was virtually empty. Then she discovered a stack of unpaid bills on the table — completely out of character for her detail-oriented mom.

“My mother would be livid if she realized that she was behind on her bills. And she always had food in the house,” recalled Firestone, a former retail sales executive who lives in Playa Vista.

These were the initials signs that her mother, Shirley Firestone, had begun a slow and arduous descent into dementia that would change both of their lives forever.

A noted food writer with the California Restaurant Association and later with Entertainment Today, Shirley Firestone was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 and died in 2015.

Randi Firestone has made it her life’s mission to help find a cure. Since 2012, she’s raised more than $100,000 for Alzheimer’s research through various fundraisers, including the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s events throughout Southern California. On Sunday, she’ll participate in the Santa Monica walk at Tongva Park.

“When I moved in with my mother to take care of her, I had to get to know her all over again. What people don’t understand about Alzheimer’s is that it changes the person completely. I remember being in my childhood home after a particularly difficult day with my mother and thinking, ‘I’m living with a stranger,’” Firestone recalled.

“Once she even threatened me with a knife and I had to lock myself in my bedroom,” she continued. “You have to separate that from who the person was, and this was not my mother. … With Alzheimer’s, it erases who you were like an Etch-A-Sketch.”

The Beverly Hills-based Alzheimer’s Association’s California Southland Chapter hopes to raise $200,000 this weekend and a combined $2.1 million for advocacy and research from the year’s events, said Breena Gold, the chapter’s executive director.

Firestone said the Southland chapter became a lifeline as caring for her mother became more difficult.

“We get 300,000 calls a year to our hotline. We hear all the time about how difficult Alzheimer’s can be, not only on the loved one but on the caregiver, too,” Gold said. “That’s why we have a support group on the first Thursday of every month to give caregivers a place where they can talk about their experiences.”

Firestone was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, but she hasn’t let her own health challenges slow her down.

“I haven’t shown any symptoms yet, so I’ll keep walking,” she said. “This is for my mother’s legacy.”

With its winding paths, rolling hills and waterfalls, Tongva Park can inspire an almost spiritual experience and that is not lost on Firestone.

“My team is called ‘Sunshine Shirley’ after my mother because that’s how she was,” Firestone said. “And I’m sure that I’ll feel her with me as I’m walking.”

The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is at 10:30 a.m. Sunday (Sept. 23) in Tongva Park, 1615 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. On-site registration begins at 9 a.m. Call (323) 486-2821 or visit act.alz.org to register.