Alzheimer's group's ex-leader dies in crash

Published March 17, 2007

Cheryl Whitaker, former program director for the Alzheimer's Association - Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, was killed Thursday in an auto accident near Naples.

Ms. Whitaker, 61, lost control of a Jeep Liberty while changing lanes on Interstate 75 about 8 a.m., the Florida Highway Patrol reported.

The car flipped several times in the median and hit a palm tree. She was taken by helicopter to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, where she died within an hour.

Ms. Whitaker joined the Alzheimer's Association in the late 1990s, where she counseled caregivers and oversaw dozens of Tampa Bay area support groups until she resigned in 2002.

People taking care of demented loved ones often entered the association office in Pinellas Park desperate and exhausted. Whitaker would hold their hands, assure them they were not alone and urge them to put a high priority on taking care of their own needs.

"She was so compassionate, so caring to all the families. She made them feel safe," association director Gloria Smith said Friday. "When they resisted taking care of themselves, she could be hard on them, too."

In 2002, a support group that Whitaker ran was featured in a special St. Petersburg Times report called "Alone Together: A Year of the Life of an Alzheimer's Support Group."

After leaving the Alzheimer's Association, Whitaker lived temporarily with a daughter in South Florida. She then returned to St. Petersburg, living with friends Ron and Nancy Laniewski, and visiting her mother, who lived for years in a nursing home with Alzheimer's.

Serious heart problems prevented Ms. Whitaker from returning to full-time work, said Nancy Laniewski.

Ms. Whitaker is survived by two daughters, Melissa Rose and Michelle Burg, both of Davie; her mother, Lyola Frazier, of St. Petersburg; a sister, Lynne Sweeney, of Gallipolis, Ohio, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Fred Hunter Memorial Gardens in Davie.