Since 1985, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) members have played an important role in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease through donations and community outreach. Leland “Wally” Walbruch, whose family has been touched by Alzheimer’s disease, is a leading example, volunteering as a community educator and fundraiser in his Montana hometown.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alzheimer’s educator and longtime Walk to End Alzheimer’s participant “Wally” Walbruch brought the colorful orange, blue, yellow and purple windmill flowers — a favorite sight of Walk to End Alzheimer’s participants — to his neighborhood by creating a Promise Garden in his own backyard. Promise Garden flowers represent the promise to honor, care and fight for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia and their caregivers. “It worked so well as a focal point in the neighborhood and, more importantly, as a lead-in for further discussion about the disease,” Wally says. “The idea was all my wife Vicki's! We created this in her seasonal flower garden that is part of our home's entrance area.”
The NARFE-Alzheimer’s national committee has regional leaders across the country, and Wally oversees the region that represents Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington State. As a Montana Alzheimer's Association Community Educator since 2017, Wally has been providing virtual education sessions since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We collaborate with other Alzheimer’s Association chapters near us to share knowledge and engage with other volunteers virtually. For the moment and into the near future, virtual is the safe way to go.” The Montana Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association also offers monthly volunteer virtual Zoom check-ins that Wally attends, calling them “an excellent way to foster collegial discussions and Q&A on Alzheimer's programs. When people talk openly about Alzheimer’s disease, this always leads to educational moments.”
Wally continues to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s during the pandemic, having shifted his focus to ways he can safely provide resources while raising funds for the NARFE Walk to End Alzheimer’s team. “This year, we provided each of our team’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s participants with an Alzheimer's Association pen, Walk flags and introductory Alzheimer's Association educational brochures. In the process, we raised another $500, adding to the $2500 we had raised online!” As a NARFE member, “we all use our time, energy and talents to work towards change for issues we care about.”
Facing Alzheimer’s from a Distance
After meeting in Minnesota while in college, Wally and his wife Vicki both went on to work in federal careers. Vicki was a nurse and Wally was a teacher, later taking a job in Europe with the Department of Defense. After 17 years in Germany, the couple transferred to Japan, and after living there for eight years, they moved to England, where Wally taught for another nine years. In 2010, Wally retired after 34 year of federal service, as did Vicki, who had worked with the Department of Defense and National Security Agency. During those many years working abroad, Wally’s family faced Alzheimer’s more than once.
“We were so far away upon my mom's death. We were lucky to be in the U.S. to visit her once more before she passed away on Christmas Day, 1998. Her sister passed about a year and a half earlier, also due to complications of Alzheimer's disease,” Wally says. “I was in a unique situation, as Vicki and I were often transferring to work in new countries abroad. I really had to rely on my younger siblings to do the hard caregiving work with my mom until she was moved to a memory care facility. I am forever grateful for what they did and thankful that I was able to be part of the decision making process as my mom progressed in her disease.”
More recently, Wally's cousin (the oldest son of his mother’s sister) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “Because of our shared familial history, we know the road ahead isn’t easy. But no fight looks the same. My mother was healthy as a horse for many, many years and her cognitive issues progressed slowly; her sister had a very rapid decline in comparison. It is almost as if my aunt had reverted to infancy. The last time I saw her, she was curled up in a corner.
That left quite an impression on me — that Alzheimer's affects people so very differently. It’s unforgiving, and it doesn’t present itself the same way in one person as it does another.”
Looking back, Wally recalls the time his aunt and her husband came to Germany for a Rhine River trip years before, visiting for a few days. “The first thing my Uncle Walt said was: ‘Is it possible to lock the doors overnight?’ He was worried about my aunt wandering. This idea never even dawned on me before that, as someone who had not dealt with the disease on a daily basis.”
Keeping the Community Educated
Wally finds a strong connection between his federal service and the work he does as an Alzheimer’s educator, and it gives him the chance to make a difference in a way he couldn’t back when he was living abroad. “I felt the need to recommit myself to the Alzheimer’s cause since I couldn't help my siblings on a day-to-day basis back when my mom was battling the disease. It feels really good to be so involved with the cause today.”
In that vein, Wally has also met with legislators to encourage funding of Alzheimer’s disease research, the one thing he believes can change the face of this disease and how it impacts families. “Millions more people have been affected since my mother passed. I’m there for the people who want to open up about losing a loved one, or who are struggling with the disease.” Making these connections has always been a powerful reminder of the important volunteer work he is doing. “It’s commendable that NARFE established a commitment to support the Alzheimer's Association shortly after its inception by joining the fight to end Alzheimer’s in 1985. Together, we can help eliminate Alzheimer's through advancement of research. If you don't know someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, you know someone who knows someone who has the disease or other form of dementia.”
Through these difficult times, Wally continues to find new ways to safely promote Alzheimer’s awareness and education so that other families will not have to face Alzheimer’s in the future. “While the pandemic has made us more cautious of how we engage with others, it has also made us more understanding of each other. People will not know about your cause unless you educate them, and through that education, we are creating new voices in the fight to end Alzheimer’s.”
In collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association, NARFE members have donated more than $13.5 million to the NARFE Alzheimer’s Fund, with 100% of NARFE fund donations allocated to research. NARFE is a member of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Zenith Society.
About: Leland Walbuch, who became known as Wally during his time living in Japan, lives in Kalispell, Montana with wife Vicki. He is the Montana NARFE Federation President and an Alzheimer’s Association community volunteer. Visit his Walk to End Alzheimer’s page.
This post includes photos from both 2019 and 2020.
NARFE and the Walk to End Alzheimer’s