Before 2001, I thought of Alzheimer's as a horrific disease I knew very little about except that I hoped it would never touch my life. Being a 12-year-old little girl, I viewed Alzheimer's like many other epidemics plaguing other worlds outside my own; I felt protected and safe from such a foreign illness. I never thought this disease I could never remember how to spell, would ever affect me.
Yet, this seemingly foreign, intangible illness entered into my life and harmed the one I ironically always thought invincible to any physical storm or sickness- my grandpa. It may sound illogical, but all through my childhood my grandparents were the most static, strong individuals I ever knew. Nothing could hurt my grandpa, who always had the strongest grip when he hugged me, always had all the answers, and never sang quietly. His voice, his presence, his life was extraordinary.
In World War II my grandpa flew a C-47 in the pacific front lines to deliver supplies, and transport wounded soldiers and civilians to safety. He won The Distinguished Flying Cross twice. Once, when he successfully flew through a typhoon, and the other for landing troops on a jungle airstrip in New Guinea while under enemy fire. After the war, my grandpa met and fell in love with my grandma on a blind date and the two moved from Evanston, Ill. to Tucson, Ariz. where they raised their three sons. My grandpa was a high school math teacher and my grandma, a nurse. They still reside in Tucson today.
The fact that this invisible degenerative disease of the brain could cripple my grandpa, who seemed so strong to have survived five plane crashes in the war, and destroy his vigorous life seemed so unreal. Yet it was real, and gradually as the years progressed, I saw my grandpa's back bow more and more as if the burden of the disease was too great until finally his once strong, brave body bent rigidly into a wheelchair.
A few years after my grandpa had gone into a special nursing home for his condition, my grandma began having symptoms of dementia. Her dementia became progressively worse until she became like my grandpa, bowing under the burden of her disease and became wheelchair bound. My grandma was always happy, comforting, never complained, and never once had anything bad to say about anyone (except for occasionally the president, but even then she expressed all her opinions with a warm nature). She had a way of getting me to laugh through all my worries. Yet now that my grandma is sick, all she does is cry. Alzheimer's changed the ones I loved. It is painful to see my grandparents now but I know deep inside their aged bodies lies the gentle souls who helped me grow up.
It has been 11 years since my grandpa's diagnosis and two years since my grandma entered a nursing home. The disease can last anywhere from seven to 20 years. According to the Alzheimer's Association, this disease is the only cause of death that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed. This dire truth exhibits the burden Alzheimer's places upon families and patients. My family and many families with loved ones suffering from the disease undergo financial and emotional burden due to the unknown length of this slow, fatal disease. Additionally, drug research for Alzheimer's treatment and, perhaps someday, a cure is costly and sorely underfunded.
Funding for Alzheimer's Association is critical. The upcoming Walk To End Alzheimer's is an event in which the entire community can help. It can help in building awareness and the importance in financial support. Starting your team, using the Alzheimer's Association website to fundraise before and after the Walk, helps provide support to people like my grandparents.
Anyone can sign up. Voices in numbers make a difference. The Walk To End Alzheimer's is this Saturday at the Weber County Fairgrounds. Check in and registration begins at 8 a.m. Or you can register early online at www.alz.org/walk. Ending the Alzheimer's epidemic is a nationwide and community effort in which anyone can help by participating in this month's Walk and/or starting a fundraising team.
Melissa Howell is a University of Utah student intern with the Alzheimer's Association. She is the daughter of Executive Editor Andy Howell.