By Amelia Pak-Harvey
When Mike Bennett was 47, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
The Ayer native was hit with memory loss at a fairly young age, right as he had moved in with his fiancée, Jane Cella, to embark on a new stage of life. But when the symptoms began showing up at work, he lost his job as a human-resources manager.
"I couldn't understand why he was having so much trouble at work," Cella said. "He was always such a hard worker."
Bennett's life was put on hold as his conditions worsened and he eventually needed full-time care. The former Carlin's bartender now lives at The Atrium at Drum Hill in Chelmsford, a round-the-clock facility.
"He's been getting really good care there," Cella said. "He's comfortable there."
But Bennett's savings are drying up, and now his friends and family are working to keep him in the stable environment.
Cella and Bennett's friends have organized a fundraiser on March 23 at the Bull Run in Shirley to raise money that will help to pay for his medical care. Attendees can enjoy raffle prizes, comedy and live music from the Yard Sale Rejects, the band Bennett played in as a drummer.
"We're just trying to do something positive and help him out so he can stay where he is longer," Cella said. "Because he really does get wonderful care -- they just love him."
Bennett's condition is hard for a family that has had its share of tragedies. Bennett's brother, Mark, died in a fire at age 26, Cella said. She said it's hard for Mike's mother, Mary Bennett, to watch her son go through this when Mary says it should be the other way around.
Despite his condition, those who know Bennett said he is still the caring gentleman he always was.
"Even with all that's going on, he's still very, very caring and a gentleman that will open up the door for the women," Cella said.
Larry Boisseau, a member of the Yard Sale Rejects, grew up with Bennett in Ayer and has been playing in bands with him since the 1970s.
Bennett's condition was already kicking in when he started playing with the band, Boisseau said. Bennett began showing up to practice with a notepad and writing things down, he said.
"He would forget things when we were playing, especially newer songs, but it never dawned on any of us that there might be something wrong," Boisseau said.
Boisseau said Bennett is the type of person to give the shirt off his back. The fundraiser is a way to give back to him, Boisseau said, because Bennett would never ask for the help himself.
"It's important to us that he gets to stay there a little longer," Boisseau said. "We might not be able to pull in the kind of money that he's going to need to stay there long-term, but the longer we can get him to stay there, the better off he's going to be."
Although Bennett has lost his ability to speak and has trouble remembering people, his friends can still spark his memory.
Leslie Alessandri, another member of the band, said they all look for special moments with Bennett. When she visited him a few weeks ago, he pulled away when she gave him a hug. But then, there was some kind of recognition.
"All of a sudden it was like a light bulb went on," she said. "His face lit up and he grabbed me and he pulled me in."
And Bennett still manages to keep his musical spirit. Last year, the band came to The Atrium and played with him.
Although he has lost the ability to play with drumsticks, Cella said he still keeps drumming on tables or bongo drums.
Alessandri said the Yard Sale Rejects began about 14 years ago and had played at the Newburyport Blues Festival, the Billiard's Cafe and the Phoenix Bar and Grill in Shirley.
"He had such muscle memory in drumming I think that held out a lot longer than probably some of his other cognitive abilities," Alessandri said.
Tickets are $20 and can be ordered at the door or by calling 978-772-6057. Those who are unable to attend can still go to the band's website, www.yardsalerejects.com, to make a donation online.
"On behalf of Mike, myself and Mike's family, we would like to thank all of those who have donated whether it be in the form of time, money, prayers, raffle items," Cella said. "We are humbled and ever so grateful for the outpouring of support."
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