Kelly Helton knows faith will get you through a lot of things — that’s a lesson she learned from her grandmother Phyllis Otis.
Phyllis was devoutly religious. She sat in the same church pew every Wednesday and Sunday for more than 30 years. But her devotion and commitment to something larger than herself extended well beyond the four walls of her place of worship.
Phyllis also believed in love.
She loved the same man, Otis Smith, for more than 55 years of marriage. Together, the two raised two children, who in turn started their own families. Through all those years, Phyllis remained an example of faith and love for everyone she interacted with.
“She was always the first one to volunteer to help anyone,” Kelly said. “She was just this bubbly, traditional Southern woman who would crack up at the smallest thing — I can still hear her laugh now.”
But a little more than seven years ago, Kelly began noticing changes in her grandmother — including hearing her laugh less and less.
“It was a very gradual change, which I’m grateful for, because I don’t know if I could have handled such an abrupt change in her personality,” Kelly said. “But we noticed she’d forget to take the dog out or she’d call me by the wrong name. We kind of ignored it for about a year, until it became too much to sidestep.”
That kind of reluctance to start a conversation around signs of cognitive decline is common. In fact, a 2018 Alzheimer’s Association survey found that 38 percent of respondents said they’d wait until a family member’s Alzheimer’s symptoms worsened before approaching them with concerns.
And nearly one in three Americans wouldn’t say anything to a family member despite their concerns. Often, it’s because they’re afraid they’ll offend a family member or ruin a relationship.
But Kelly will tell you the opposite is often true.
“Things like this really strengthen the bond between family members,” Helton said. “The start of this journey was hard, but it was also encouraging because of how our family bound together the way my grandmother taught us to.”
One of the ways the family chose to unite and support Phyllis was by participating in the Chattanooga Walk to End Alzheimer’s — the Alzheimer’s Association's largest fundraising initiative that helps fund Alzheimer’s care, education and research.
But the 2019 Walk will be a little different for Helton. She lost her grandmother to Alzheimer’s disease in January.
Still, she's determined to honor Phyllis’ legacy.
“Because she was always so willing to help others, I’ve continued volunteering for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s,” Helton said. “I think she’d be proud that I’m still fighting this disease, that we’re not giving up.”
Helton has even partnered with her coworkers at the Moxy Hotel in Chattanooga
to raise money for the Walk in honor of Phyllis.
On Saturday, July 20, the hotel will host “Dog Gone Purple.
” Attendees can deck their dogs in purple for a costume contest, enjoy a photo booth and have fun at a doggy kissing booth. Each pup will also receive a goody bag, and their humans will get a thank-you beer.
For now, events like this are Kelly’s reminder to lighten up and laugh — even in the face of such a devastating disease. And despite losing the woman who taught her to have faith through dark times, Kelly said she’s more optimistic than ever.
“Even if someone can’t relate to this disease or they’re not personally affected, I’ve seen them step up and ask how they can help,” she said. “That compassion and love is how we help people through this. That support is how we’re going to find a cure.”
The Alzheimer's Association leads the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's and all other dementia.™ For more information, visit www.alz.org or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.