Even though I grew up hundreds of miles away from my grandmothers, they still played a major role in my life. When I was 10 or 11, I began writing each of them a letter once a week - and they wrote back. My grandmothers and I would exchange letters for almost 20 years.
When I was younger, I wrote a lot about school, friendships and soccer. Grandma Jean liked to send clippings from her local newspaper, while Grandma Jessie always shared a story about the latest senior citizen club meeting. As I got older, I wrote more about my struggles, falling in love, finding my way. My grandmothers were so different, but some themes in their letters were exactly the same.They were always encouraging and loving. I came to depend on the support I found in their letters.
Around 1999, I began to notice changes in my grandmothers’ letters. Grandma Jean would sign her full name instead of her usual “Love, Grandma.” Some of Grandma Jessie’s sentences would seem incomplete, like she had lost her thought and started a new one. Subtle changes, but after hundreds of letters, I knew something was wrong.
In 2000, both of my grandmothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That next year, I began my work with the Alzheimer’s Association. It has been a true honor to spend my career in gerontology and public health working for the Alzheimer’s Association, Heart of America Chapter, where I help families cope with and navigate the journey that is Alzheimer’s. I work alongside amazing and compassionate people who are committed to providing education and support for families touched by Alzheimer’s.
As my grandmothers’ disease progressed, their letters arrived less frequently, then not at all – but I sent mine anyway. Caregivers and family members would read my letters to them. In 2010, I lost both of my grandmothers to Alzheimer’s; Jean in November and Jessie in December. I wrote each of them a final letter, the only ones I never mailed. Today, years after my grandmothers’ letters stopped arriving, I rarely go to the mailbox without thinking of them. They inspire me every day. I’m reminded of something Grandma Jean often included in her letters. She would encourage me to “Do something good today. I know you will.” Those of us at the Alzheimer’s Association have pledged to do our very best until we live in a world without Alzheimer’s.