Like most college students, Alzheimer’s wasn’t something I thought about. In fact, I knew little about the disease other than it robbed people of their memories. Then I started talking to a friend who works for the Alzheimer’s Association and thought maybe interning there would be my chance to gain experience and do something for those who need help. It felt invigorating and empowering to think of beginning a career this way. At that point, I didn’t really know Alzheimer’s disease intimately.
I called my family to share the news of the internship; in that conversation, they told me about my grandfather’s recent diagnosis. BAM! Alzheimer’s sucker-punched me. The day I began the internship, I simultaneously came face-to-face with Alzheimer’s and gained a clear sense of purpose for my career. This was the day I began to lose someone I love to this insidious dementia disease, the day I discovered a new form of heartbreak that millions have experienced before I ever did – the very people I hoped to serve.
Now my grandfather, a person who helped shape my world, can no longer remember his favorite moments, like the fact that he was the first human being ever to hold me when I was a baby. Soon he will not recognize my face.
This experience has taught me precisely how Alzheimer’s affects more than just the individual who has the disease. It is a devastating force multiplied, affecting everyone caring for, or about, the person with Alzheimer’s; a spreading progression, as it touches more and more people. And I’ve learned how everyone, including the person with Alzheimer’s, will try to hold on to memories that are constantly slipping away into a dark and viscous abyss of amyloid plaques and tangles. The loving moments we’ve shared as a family are the moments I fight for every day. What are we as humans, if not the compilation of love and life we have shared with one another?
I work harder and with newfound passion so others won’t experience the despair I now know when my beloved grandfather forgets my name. I fight to protect families like mine, who are watching loved ones’ minds and memories disappear under the harsh, crumbling weight of stress a family endures as they watch the person they love disappear – not actually dying, but becoming an entity neither they nor he can recognize. I fight for the precious memories that took a lifetime to collect as they painfully and nightmarishly vanish. I fight because the day I joined the Alzheimer’s Association was also the first day I started on this path that leads to my grandfather not knowing when he is talking to me, and that I am his grandson who loves him.
He will forget, but I will fight so there may be a generation of young people who remember. Our generation must make Alzheimer’s a priority; it’s the only way we may be able to change our fate of inheriting this terrible disease. By making it a priority, we could make the disease itself a memory.
I want my congressman, U.S. Representative John Rutherford, to prioritize a discussion and consideration about Alzheimer’s on Capitol Hill. I strongly encourage my fellow Floridians to remind President Donald J. Trump and members of Congress of their commitment to continue the progress we’ve made.
Holler is a University of North Florida student.