Each summer while growing up, my sister and I lived with our grandparents in Leawood, Kansas, for one week, going on adventures all around the city with grandma.
We helped garden their huge backyard that included an in-ground pond with a bridge, a playhouse built by my grandpa, a big swing perfect for reading, and stepping stones we were in charge of placing each year based on how far our little kid strides had grown.
Grandma had a rule that you had to try at least one bite of a new food while there, much to my picky eater sister’s reluctance, and we almost always ordered in spaghetti from a local place. And my grandpa loved our visits because it meant grandma stocked chocolate milk in the fridge.
Grandma’s signature color was green and loved sunshine; every card you ever received from her was written in green pen and included a small drawn smiling sun with her signature. She worked at a Hallmark store during retirement, so we could always expect new Beanie Babies under our pillows every time we were at the house; we amassed quite the collection.
She told my sister and I that God made her wait for granddaughters — she was the mother of two sons — but that it was worth the wait because of all the things she could share with us now.
Looking back, the signs were there earlier than any of us cared to fully acknowledge. We said it might be something more, but people have memory problems as they get older. But now, I know that grandma having trouble giving my dad a grocery list and forgetting her words were beyond the normal scope of aging.
Several years later, at the end of my college years, she and my grandpa moved into a retirement home when my grandpa decided he could no longer take care of their house. We moved them out of my dad’s childhood home, much to grandma’s protests, and sifted through nearly 50 years worth of belongings and memories. We kept the photos, a box of love letters sent while grandpa was in the Army, the grandfather clock grandpa put together and pieces from the garden. We threw out the 15-year-old tax returns grandma swore she needed and random school papers she had saved from dad’s high school days.
The staff at my grandparents’ new residence soon realized grandma needed more care than that particular facility could offer. However, my grandpa was still self-sufficient with some help needed here and there. That meant they were separated after decades of marriage as she moved into a high-care facility while he remained in their original building. He faithfully took the bus each Thursday to visit her.
Grandma lost her battle with dementia the day before New Year’s Eve. It was a battle we should have helped her fight harder, but it was a battle we were unprepared to tackle. Even with nurses constantly by her side, there’s no guidebook to handling a loved one losing her bright personality. There’s no guidebook to talking with your dad about whether or not his mom still recognizes him during his weekly visits.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s and that number is only expected to rise. It is the sixth leading cause of death, more than prostate and breast cancer combined.
While I no longer have the opportunity to help my grandma, I take a little solace in knowing I joined Sigma Kappa, a sorority whose main philanthropy is gerontology and the Alzheimer’s Association. I helped raise money through various fundraisers and my entire chapter attended the Overland Park, Kansas, Walk to End Alzheimer’s each year, something they will do again Oct. 6.
While I didn’t have a direct connection at the time, I still knew what we were doing was important. I know that even more now. Those “Memories Matter” shirts served a larger purpose than just another T-shirt in my dresser.
I'm now lucky enough to live in a community with its own Walk to End Alzheimer’s, being hosted today at Centennial Park, and an employer that supports it. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing walkers whose stories I unfortunately relate to but I’m proud to share with our readers.
I encourage to donate or join a team for the walk but if you can’t, I encourage you to spend time with your loved ones creating memories. They may fade for some, but for the rest of us, hopefully they’ll last a lifetime.