February 16, 2004. That’s the day we lost my grandfather. Well, my dad’s stepdad, but he was always considered my grandfather, affectionately P-Pa, from the time I was born. That year, I was in my final semester of college and didn’t expect the end so soon.
I’ll never forget my grandmother sitting us down to tell us the diagnosis. My sister and I were in our early teens. Alzheimer’s disease. Sure, we had heard of it, but that was supposed to be an old person’s problem. Our grandfather was only in his 50s. Okay, so he forgot where his keys were or left something behind somewhere. Who hasn’t done that before?
The diagnosis didn’t ring true for me for quite some time. He seemed like the same loveable man I had always known. The grandfather that would rush home for lunch on the days he knew we were staying at their house. The same grandfather who had climbed around on the floor with us, let us play dress up with him, and played music for us. Surely this old person’s disease wasn’t going to affect him. He was still young. There was still time.
Our sweet grandmother tried to get us to read literature on Alzheimer’s, but being a typical teenager, I just didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to think about what may be coming. I didn’t want to think about how it might end, would end.
The progression was slow at first. It was early onset, as they say. He would forget little things. For the longest time, I didn’t really notice much of a difference. And then it seemed to grow steadily worse. He wouldn’t remember us when we’d visit. I know many people have experienced this and I know I’m not alone when I say that it feels like a slap in the face the first time. This tall, strong, loving man was starting to drift away from us.
The family would visit for holidays, birthdays and random gatherings. We’d find our usual spots in the living room and glance at P-Pa, sitting in his usual chair. The chair he held me in when I was a baby. The chair he sat me in when I was barely a toddler with his headphones balanced on my ears. The chair where he shared his interest for CB radio. That chair had been there for years, but the man in the chair wasn’t the same. Every now and then he’d reminisce about something from his youth. Something I had never heard before, but then he would grow quiet and not recognize any of us in the room. Including my grandmother.
He was the love of her life. She had found a second chance with him and the love they had still continues to inspire me. He made her so happy. It was so hard to watch her suffer as he suffered. She continued to stand by him as the disease took him away from her. She served as his primary caregiver almost to the very end. She is so much stronger than her little five-foot frame would suggest. She is a fighter. They both are the reason I fight.
The End of Alzheimer’s Starts with All of Us
Through a leadership program in 2010, I had the opportunity to help start a young professionals group in the local Alzheimer’s Association Chapter. I now serve as co-chair for that group. This is my opportunity to remember my grandfather and to honor the strength and resiliency of my grandmother. This is my chance to make up for those teenage years when it was too frightening to learn about this disease. This is my chance to demonstrate to our society that this is not just an old person’s disease. This is my chance to show that that The End of Alzheimer’s Starts with Me.
Kelly Williams is being honored by the Alzheimer’s Association as an Alzheimer’s Hero during September, which is World Alzheimer’s Month. Wanting to help others after losing her grandfather to the disease, Kelly helped launch YAAA! (Young Adults for Alzheimer’s Awareness) in her community. As YAAA! co-chair, she created the group’s first fundraiser, a black tie bowling event.