There are a lot of smiles in those headline photos. Smiles to cover up the pain, smiles to show our hope. We have all been impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only leading cause of death in the list of top ten that does not have a treatment, prevention, or cure. In two weeks, we will have a special guest on our podcast from the Alzheimer’s Association to talk about the risks for women and what’s being done to fight the disease. This week, I’m sharing a snippet of my story. Millions of Americans have stories just like mine, so I share it to offer comfort, resources, and hope.
I will never forget the day that my grandmother gave me a blank look, no longer able to recognize me.
I had flown home for Christmas, nearly 700 miles from Minneapolis to Detroit, and that day I felt every single painful mile that we had spent apart.
My grandmother walked through the door with a big smile on her face. She hugged everyone in my family, still smiling, and then she stopped and looked at me. That blank look. A wave of confusion. A look, almost, of fear. I will never forget the dagger through my heart. She could only manage to say a few words at this stage in her battle, but the look said it all.
Alzheimer’s had ravaged her brain. She no longer knew who I was.
I tried to smile through the heartbreak until I could escape to my childhood bedroom. Feeling much like a child again, I was overcome by the feeling of losing my grandmother — before she was actually gone. It surely didn’t help that inside that childhood bedroom, I was surrounded by reminders of who we were before the disease.
And while I dealt with my own emotions, I tried to imagine hers. What does it feel like to be cut off from your own memories? And what about that look of fear that I had seen on her face? How could it feel to be trapped by your own mind? By a brain that would eventually be unable to tell the body how to function.
But even in the midst of heartbreak, there is always hope.
I saw that beacon of hope just a few hours later when I found grandmother smiling at me from across the room. That look? That blank look? That look, almost, of fear? That look had faded, even if only for a few minutes. My grandmother took my hand, still smiling, and said three words: “I like you”. It was so simple. Yet it was enough for me to know that she remembered.
Those three words, to me, spelled hope.
It was our last Christmas before Alzheimer’s disease took my grandmother’s life. I’m so grateful to have this photo of us from that day because just a few months later, she was gone. Her ten-plus years trapped in her own body, our family’s ten-year struggle, was over.
What my grandma showed me in that final memory, has become so much more than just three words.
“I like you” could have been “Never give up”.
“I like you” could have been “find a cure!” (and yes, grandma, we will!).
“I like you” could have been “don’t lose hope” or “we’re almost there”.
“I like you” is my reason for hope.
Now, more than 12 years after my grandmother’s passing, I am more passionate than ever about providing support and care for families who are going through what my family experienced. I became a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association as a way to channel my grief into giving, as a way to fight back against the injustice of this disease. I joined the fight years ago because of my grandmother; I stay because of the families just like mine that I continue to meet on this journey.
More than 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only one in the top ten without a prevention, treatment, or cure. In 2019, Alzheimer’s will cost our nation $290 billion. Billion!
Women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. Right now in the U.S., 13 million women are either living with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone who has it. Women in their 60s are more than TWICE AS LIKELY to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer. Find more stats and reasons why here.
But we are also closer than ever to finding answers!
Scientists believe with increased funding, they can find a cure by 2050. It’s an aggressive goal, but together we can make it happen. For more than five million families, it’s our reason for hope. And it’s our rally cry for action!
Together, we are making a difference. Together, we can end this devastating disease, to give all families a reason to hope.
Despite all of my titles and positions of leadership, it’s the role of granddaughter of which I am most proud. It pushes me daily to fight for a cure for Alzheimer’s. It reminds me of the vibrant, loving, and strong woman who supports me from beyond. And it reminds me that we all have a reason to hope.
Will you join me? I’d love to hear your story and share with you ways to get involved. Wherever you are, there is a chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association that would love to have you join the fight! If you’re in Michigan, let’s talk.
Help is Available!
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, you are not alone. The Alzheimer’s Association is the trusted resource for reliable information, education, referral and support to millions of people affected by the disease.
- Call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline: 800.272.3900
- Locate your local Alzheimer’s Association
- Use the Alzheimer’s Association’s Virtual Library
- Go to Alzheimer’s Navigator to create customized action plans and connect with local support services