Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Nia, 46, left home at 19 to join the United States Air Force. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017, four months after retiring from the military.
Nia’s decision to join the Air Force, encouraged by her uncles who served in the Army, is one she speaks of proudly. “The Air Force gave me the opportunity to grow and become a servant leader,” she shares. “I’m an introvert by nature, but I love taking care of people, so the Air Force gave me the best of both worlds.” Nia rose to the rank of senior master sergeant, a title she held until her retirement. “Even as a high-ranking individual in your unit, your role is to serve, and ensure that your team is fit to carry out the mission. Being a senior master sergeant is the epitome of a servant leader.”
Nia began to notice changes in her cognition during her last two years in the military: missing meetings, forgetting tasks and feeling like those around her were taking care of her. “This was unusual. I was only 42 years old, with multiple degrees and certifications, very high performing. And then I began experiencing visual hallucinations and sleepwalking. One day, I forgot how to start my car.” After a lot of trial and error, Nia’s neurologist performed a scan which indicated Alzheimer’s disease. “I didn’t think that this could happen to someone like me, someone so young. I was part of the stigma, and I had to educate myself.”
Stigma is a term that Nia now understands well. “Because of my age, people will say ‘You don't look like you have Alzheimer’s’ or ‘There’s no way you have Alzheimer’s disease.’ I actually had to educate a doctor about the fact that people with Alzheimer's and dementia have on and off days. When it comes to things like clarity, confusion and coordination, I live moment to moment. Some days are just better than others.” Today Nia carries cards that she can hand to someone in situations where she requires patience. “If I’m having trouble comprehending something, or someone is talking too fast, I can hand the card to them to let them know that I am living with this disease. I look younger than I am, so people often don’t want to believe the reality.”
Nia continues to use the tools she learned while serving. “At my retirement ceremony, my commanding officer acknowledged that I really thrive in one-on-one relationships," she says. "Today, I lead the way for myself, and others facing Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
Since being diagnosed, Nia has spent her time using her voice for the Alzheimer’s Association as a national early-stage advisor and volunteering with her church. She wants to make people aware that Alzheimer’s doesn’t only affect older people. “At first, when I jumped in head over feet volunteering, it dawned on me that this is a progessive disease, and I probably gave my brain’s best years to my work in the military. But then I took a step back and realized that I am a fighter. I can thrive. I can fight back. And I am still here.”
Nia’s strong Christian faith has helped her on her journey. “My desire to do good things and be a good person is due to my faith," she says. "My friends at church are part of my support system, and they are very understanding when I get confused over certain tasks. Being able to choose what I can do to help my church allows me to celebrate my abilities instead of amplifying any shortcomings.”
Between Nia’s time in the military and her son Alex’s time in college, they haven’t lived together in quite some time, but Nia has now relocated from Texas to Idaho to be near him. “I want to see my son become the man he is becoming. We are so excited to finally be together.” Nia is also looking ahead to building relationships with new doctors, connecting with parishioners at a new church, and continuing her volunteer work with the Alzheimer’s Association.
As she advocates for herself and others, Nia’s advice is simple. “Don’t be afraid to reach out for resources. For others in service, there is help through the VA, including memory care and their ‘Caring for the Caregiver’ program.” Nia also joined a virtual younger-onset Alzheimer’s Association support group that has been a huge help on her journey. “Everyone in the group is under 65 years of age, all active adults. I’m able to talk with my peers, people who understand what I am going through.
Being a servant leader in the Air Force gave me the strength to advocate for myself on my Alzheimer's journey. I am strong in my faith and strong in this battle. If you are also someone facing Alzheimer's or dementia, don't concentrate on the things you can't do. Capitalize on the things you CAN do, and don't be too hard on yourself.”
About: Nia holds a degree in education, and taught professional military education in the Air Force. Recently relocating to be near her son, Nia will soon be a grandma. Nia also participates in Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer's and The Longest Day, events she enjoys “because I am able to help educate people and raise funds for the cause at the same time.” Nia lives with her Chihuahua-daschund mix Sophie.
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