Friday, March 13, 2009

Remembering Gawa: Why I Support the Alzheimer's Association

I decided that I would designate today as "Philanthropy Friday," and write about a cause that is very important to me. If you read my post about the economy's effect on charities, you know that I'm a supporter of the Alzheimer's Association. In that post, I gave a brief description of why that cause means so much to me, but today I'm going to share the whole story.

My grandma ("Gawa" as I called her) was an amazing lady. She was funny, smart, and strong-willed, and her family meant a lot to her. We were always close, even though she and my grandpa lived in Ohio and I lived in Massachusetts and then New York. She and I would talk on the phone often, and she was always interested in what was going on in my life. I think I might have gotten my love for sending cards from her, because she sent cards for every holiday and occasion. When I was at camp during the summer, she made sure I got plenty of care packages. Even though I was the only grandchild who didn't live in Cleveland, my grandparents made sure that I didn't feel any less loved. I looked forward to visiting them there, and in Florida, and taking cruises with the whole family. Gawa loved beading, the ocean, and spending time with her friends, and she was an avid General Hospital fan.

Several years ago, it seemed like Gawa was forgetting things a lot. For a while, we all figured it was just a result of aging, but after she started having some strange physical symptoms too, she finally went to the doctor. He told her that she had dementia and it was pretty far along. She started taking medication, and at the beginning it seemed like she was pretty much the same. But then, every time I saw her, she had gotten worse. It was a slow, gradual process, but I remember thinking how bad things were each time, and then wishing they could go back to that way the next time.

There are different stages of the disease when certain symptoms are more prominent. I remember one night when my mom and I were visiting my grandparents at their house in Cleveland. We were lying in bed trying to fall asleep, while my grandpa was in the other room trying to get my grandma to take her pills. She started yelling at him, convinced that he was trying to poison her, saying she didn't trust him, and she knew he was just trying to get rid of her. During another visit, we took her to lunch at one of her favorite restaurants and she didn't remember it. She was so quiet that day, she barely spoke and responded to our questions only in disjointed sentences.

After a while, my grandpa hired an aide. But, Gawa hated her, and I mean hated her. She also wasn't trained to deal with people with Alzheimer's or dementia. Fortunately, my mom found a program at a local community center that was affiliated with the Alzheimer's Association. At least there, she was with people who were like her and who understood her condition better.

Although he had put it off as long as possible, things finally got to a point in the fall of 2007 when my grandpa couldn't take care of my grandma on his own anymore. So, she moved into Menorah Park, a campus-sized nursing home and assisted living facility in Cleveland. It was so hard to visit her there. On the one hand, there were so many people who were worse off than she was, at least at the beginning, but on the other hand, she looked so helpless sitting there in a wheelchair that beeped if she tried to get up.

Things continued as they had before. Every visit, she was a little bit worse, but she still seemed happy to see us and knew who we were. Last Spring, she really started to decline. At that point, my mom was visiting once a month, and I was visiting every few months. I think it was in June that we visited for what would be the last time, and fittingly, it was the hardest. For the first time, Gawa didn't know who we were. She stared into the eyes of her only daughter and granddaughter, and as hard as she thought, she just couldn't remember. Throughout the day, she kept looking at us, trying so hard to figure out who these people were who had come to see her, but she never did. In July, her body finally gave into her mind and gave up. In a way, I was happy that she didn't have to suffer anymore, and I hoped with all my heart that she had no idea what was happening to her.

So, if you've made it this far in the post, you understand why the Alzheimer's cause is important to me. I believe that they will one day find a cure, and I plan on doing whatever I can to help so that this terrible disease doesn't cause as much pain for other families as it did for mine. One of the hardest things for me through all of this was feeling so helpless, so in the Fall of 2007, my boyfriend Rob and I participated in the Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, we decided pretty late, and didn't have much time to fundraise. So, last year, we were much better prepared, and as a result, we were each able to raise over $500 before participating in the walk in NYC. I am so proud of this contribution! This year, I plan on topping it.

As I said in the post about helping charities in this economy, no amount is too small. The Alzheimer's Association even has a campaign right now for $5 donations. People are often hesitant to donate to causes they don't have a connection to, but please don't let that be an excuse. You've read this post, so now you're connected. Please give, if not to this cause, to another one. We have the power to make a difference.

Rob and Me at Memory Walk 2007 in D.C.

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