Natarsha Nesbitt is one of the newest Alzheimer’s Ambassadors in North Carolina, a volunteer role that takes a leadership position in the advocacy arm of the Alzheimer’s Association. Ambassadors are assigned a member of Congress and lead a team of advocates in their voting district to share their stories in hopes of passing the Association’s legislative priorities. Natarsha will have unique challenges, starting a volunteer role in the midst of a pandemic, but she is also well-qualified and highly motivated to make a difference in her community. When asked about her passion and drive, Natarsha shares that she wants to be a voice for caregivers. “They don’t have time to call their representatives, they’re too busy. They’re lucky if they even have time to sleep. They’re just trying to survive,” says Natarsha. Like many advocates, Natarsha has had a front row seat to just how awful Alzheimer’s disease can be for an individual and a family.
Natarsha remembers her mother Leola Alma (goes by her middle name) fondly as a “firecracker…she was never shy.” Alma’s primary passions were plants — anything green she could get her hands on. “The house and the yard were constantly filled with plants,” shares Natarsha. “She also loved music. Anything we could sing or dance to. She enjoyed music up until her final breath.” Being “whip smart and funny” also aided Alma in her passion for the democratic process, working the polls every election and being a vocal community advocate for the importance of voting.
Alma lived with her husband Nathanial in South Carolina near Natarsha’s brother. At the time, Natarsha lived in Tampa, Florida. She acknowledges that the signs that something wasn’t quite right are only clear in hindsight. “She would go to her mom’s house and couldn’t figure out how to get home. She drove a push button Volvo and couldn’t figure out how to get the car started. Maybe we were in denial,” shares Natarsha. As her progression became more obvious, Alma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.
“As her illness developed, I got more involved with her care,” explains Natarsha. She moved from Tampa to North Carolina. On the second day of a respite care grant in a residential facility, Alma fell and broke her hip so the family moved Alma in with Natarsha for five months. Through this process, Natarsha remembers that “She didn’t necessarily get worse, she just became different…our relationship stayed beautiful.” Over these those months of being the primary caregiver, Natarsha continued to nourish Alma’s passions. They danced for exercise. They even bought some plants to water. Natarsha laughs, saying that those three plants now number close to thirty. Alma’s passions are infectious, it seems!
Alma passed away September 13 of this year. The family chose speakers at her funeral that would best represent her passions, and even had someone registering people to vote in the parking lot. “I am so thankful that we were all there at her very last breath at home…we could actually be with her during this pandemic,” Natarsha shares. While the family sat vigil with Alma in her last moments, Natarsha got to thinking about her life and how much good Alma put into the world. This inspired Natarsha to take a look at her life choices and she committed with her mother’s last breath to pursue her passions in a similar way. The next week, she saw a position announcement for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Ambassador volunteer role on LinkedIn and knew this was the perfect fit for her to make a difference for something that she cares so deeply about.
About a year ago, Natarsha’s father Nathanial (a carpenter by trade) also started repeating stories and exhibited a shortening temper. Shortly after he was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a form of dementia that causes a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills. He is 81 and still lives safely at home with occasional visits from the same home health aid that visited Alma. Natarsha admits that her current advocacy work also takes on a sense of urgency knowing what her family will go through again. “Caregiving is such a challenge. There was zero help out there when we first started [caring for my mom],” explains Natarsha, “I am looking forward to doing something that I love and helping families like mine.”
Natarsha has been only an Ambassador for a couple of weeks, but she is already so excited about the work she is doing with the Alzheimer’s Association. She laughs as she exclaims, “I went through my training two weeks ago but I’m already behind on my homework!” She lists starting a Twitter account, drafting an email to her legislator to introduce herself, and finding a way to thank her assigned elected official for cosponsoring recent Alzheimer’s-friendly legislation. She shares that she is confident that the work she is doing can also be done while working a full-time job, despite the leadership quality of her role. She is proud to represent the Alzheimer’s Association since they were there for her at 2am when she was “overwhelmed with caregiving and just needed to talk to someone.” Natarsha used the 24/7 helpline to get lists of resources for home care agencies and also encouraged her family to use the services themselves. “Having them validate your feelings means everything. It helps if someone just hears you,” says Natarsha.
INTERESTED IN ADVOCATING IN YOUR LOCAL AREA?
With help from advocates like you, we’ve passed critical legislation and increased federal research funding five-fold since 2011. But our work isn’t done and we need dedicated advocates like you to build on this success in Congress and in our state capitol. We’ll train you to advocate in a variety of different ways, some of which will take just an hour or two every few months. Whatever your experience or availability, we’re eager to have you on our advocacy team! Will you join us?
To learn more and sign up, visit alzimpact.org/volunteer.