I’ll never forget the day in Fall 2013, sitting in the parking lot of a BBQ restaurant next to the ‘World’s Largest Honky Tonk’ in Fort Worth, Texas.
I was an anxious-to-graduate senior journalism student at Texas Christian University, fresh off a Summer internship at Dallas TV news station WFAA. Like many universities, TCU hosts a ‘Parents Weekend’ each year where Horned Frog moms and dads flock to campus to visit their child and get a peek into their life away from home. This particular ‘Parents Weekend’ was actually a ‘Grandparents Weekend’ for me, though.
It was the most wonderful thing to have these two people, who helped my then-single mother raise me in early childhood, visit TCU. As a proud journalist-in-training, I showed my grandparents around the prestigious Bob Schieffer School of Journalism. We had a fantastic time.
Their visit, as lovely as it was, ended with news I was not prepared to receive, no matter how stoic of a reporter I aspired to be. We had just pulled up to Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que for dinner – a Forth Worth Stockyards staple. As the smell of fall-off-the-bone ribs and sweet rolls greeted our noses my grandmother broke down into tears.
“Your grandpa has vascular dementia,” she announced.
Is the timing ever really perfect, anyways?
The highly accomplished retired P-3 Orion Navy pilot and Northrop Grumman executive known for his wit, philosophical wisdom, selfless nature and consistently upbeat attitude sat silently.
His pain was palpable.
A lot of loved ones will relate here: I beat myself up over what I did, didn’t do and could not control in the beginning — before the major cognitive decline. I still regret not immediately seeking more information on dementia. I still think I should have called my grandfather more often and jotted down the things he said. I still wish I had lived closer to him, so I could enjoy as many coherent conversations as possible. I still get frustrated that the diagnosis came at a time when I was so consumed by graduation and pursuing a career in news to think beyond myself.
If only we could go back, right?
The first time I heard about the Alzheimer’s Association, I was about four years into my reporting career and covering the New Mexico State Legislature’s annual session for CBS affiliate KRQE-TV. The local Association Chapter held an advocacy and awareness day at the state capitol. I was moved by their work, but it wasn’t until I changed career paths about two years later that I felt compelled to get involved.
Most journalists will tell you they feel called by a higher purpose to a career in news due to the important role it plays in the fabric of our society. It’s community service at its core. This was certainly the case for me, so leaving the business – while it was the right choice for my family – left a large hole in my heart. Coupled with a growing desire to honor my grandfather, the idea to become an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer hit me like a ton of bricks one day. After combing the Association website, alz.org, I was confident my skills as a TV news reporter and anchor would be a perfect fit for the role of Community Educator, a volunteer public speaker who provides Alzheimer’s Association education programs to community audiences. I reached out to my local Alzheimer’s Association Chapter in North Carolina. Then I went a step further and contacted their marketing and communications team, who now encourage me to write pieces (like this) for their blog.
I am humbled, grateful and once again purposed in life by the opportunity to tell the stories of caregivers, their loved ones and volunteers, as well as deliver educational programs and host panel discussions.
In the background, volunteering has become a sort of coping mechanism for me. My grandfather is in a memory care facility since he requires 24/7 care that my grandma cannot provide alone. As hard enough as it is to see him in the state he is today, COVID-19 has stripped me of visiting him at all. I haven’t seen either grandparent in over a year and I miss them both dearly.
When I see my grandfather again, I’ll continue to look past the disease and instead think of the man who made me laugh, smile and think big. The talented pilot and businessman. The loving husband. The caring dad. The wisdom-filled grandfather. That man is encapsulated in the photo board outside his memory care room, as are the ‘past lives’ of the other men and women who live there.
I view those memory boards through a different lens since becoming an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer. I don’t just see the pre-dementia person anymore – I see their family and friends, too. I see the people I volunteer my time for, who may need support, resources or information. This cause is so much bigger than me or my grandfather. It’s six million Americans plus their caregivers and loved ones. I’m proud to be part of it and I know my grandfather would be proud of me, too.
INTERESTED IN BRINGING YOUR COMMUNITY TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY EDUCATOR?
Alzheimer’s Association Community Educators are trained by the Association as volunteer public speakers who provide Alzheimer’s Association education programs to community audiences. Community Educators:
- Deliver approximately 12 presentations annually using prepared Alzheimer’s Association evidence-based consumer education programs on a variety of care and support topics. (currently all programs are being delivered virtually
- Collaborate with local Association staff to expand programs by securing community partners, scheduling presentations, delivering the programs, and managing needed materials.
- Serve as presenter for chapter-scheduled education programs and conferences.
- Connect people with additional Association services and volunteer opportunities by proactively making referrals to Alzheimer’s Association programs & free 24/7 Helpline.
Find out more and contact your local chapter staff here: PROGRAM VOLUNTEER COMMUNITY
Madeline is a former TV news reporter & anchor who got involved with the Alzheimer’s Association in Oct. 2020. She volunteers her nearly decade-long experience as a journalist to honor her grandfather, who is living with vascular dementia.