Jennifer O’Keefe begins remembering her grandfather John fondly as “the best person in the entire world.” Growing up, her parents would work through the summer, so Jennifer was dropped off at her grandparents house every morning to spend the day. “He was just a big kid,” Jennifer laughs remembering those vibrant, loud, and musical summers, “I feel like I have a lot of his personality. He was super friendly.” Jennifer utilizes this positivity and strength as both a high school teacher and a single mom.
John O’Keefe spent many years working in the local furniture industry, ending with his position as Facilities Engineer for Singer. Alongside his wife Lorraine, John was “very giving”, volunteering for many years at Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care earning them the award of “Best Volunteer” by the Governor. After retiring, John couldn’t sit still, so he started his own trailer rental company. Jennifer shares that her grandfather was a “great role model” through her entire life. Then John’s light began to diminish as he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago.
“It took his personality. It was tough. It was slow, although luckily I didn’t see much of the worst times,” shares Jennifer sadly. The family was able to keep John at home as he progressed, which Jennifer considers a blessing. They rallied around John and Lorraine, moving them from Florida to Hickory, NC so they could all share caregiving responsibilities. “He lost his memory, his thoughts… [my family] even said he started to raise his voice at times,” which surprised Jennifer as completely new and shocking behavior coming from her dynamic fun-loving grandfather. Jennifer acknowledges that her grandmother and parents likely knew about this illness before she did, hiding the details “until it was much further along, to protect me from what they could.” Remembering the news of John’s diagnosis, Jennifer shares that “it was hard to believe at first. I feel like I was in shock and was scared at the same time.” As the two were so similar in personality, she remembers thinking “He and I both share migraines as well. Could this happen to me too? Screaming thoughts just rushed through my head. This was my favorite person in the world, I didn’t want him gone.”
As John progressed through his disease, he lost most of his long-term memory, but was able to remember his family (their names) and temporarily experience the world around him. The family was “constantly having to fill in gaps” when conversations turned to memories. Interestingly enough, as John was fading to everyone else, something would spark when Jennifer visited. “When I came, everything was perfect. It meant a lot to me that I still got to see his goofy side that didn’t come out around other people. This was special to me,” shares Jennifer. Towards the end of his journey, the very service that John and Lorraine volunteered for (Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care) came in to help him transition. John passed in December 2020 with his family gathered by his side.
While John was alive, Jennifer searched for resources online. “My first thought was ‘what can we do?’ I was just trying to find out what I could do and what was available,” offered Jennifer. As there was a clear lack of physical/in-person support groups in her area at the time, the family turned to their local hospice, which gave “great resources. Beyond phenomenal. They came out whenever we needed. They were a Godsend.” Jennifer does acknowledge that there are great residential facilities in her area, but as the family had decided to keep John home, they were unable to utilize services at these companies. One way Jennifer found to try to help her grandfather and her community was to get involved with her local Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Hickory.
This year on October 30, Jennifer will walk for her 5th year in a row. Over these years her team has grown, and typically includes her family, best friend, and many connected to this core group. Jennifer fundraises primarily online through social media, breaking records and goals each year. In fact, she’s just shy of her $1,000 personal goal and her team has already surpassed their goal for this year. When she shares her grandfather’s story and fundraises for the Association, she focuses on the community education aspect of the organization’s services, sharing “Ultimately the most important is education first. If we don’t educate, we can’t get people to give money. It’s a domino effect. When I fundraise, I give facts first. Facts that just blew my mind. It all starts with that education.”
Last year Jennifer and her family spent walk day in her front yard on Facebook live, giving facts and sharing stories. This year, “as long as it is safe to do so” Jennifer hopes to walk in person. “There is just something about everyone coming together,” she shares. “I love the opening ceremony, hearing other people share their stories,” Jennifer adds, “last year I got to share mine. It helps to know you’re not alone.” Her team John’s Irish Fighters (named for the family’s heritage) highlights the “first survivor” goal, knowing that they have been dealing with this disease “for too long.” Jennifer will always remember her animated summers with her “big kid” grandfather John, dancing and playing, to keep his music alive.
LIKE JENNIFER, WE ALL HAVE A REASON TO FIGHT FOR A WORLD WITHOUT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Join your local Walk to End Alzheimer’s today.
The Alzheimer’s Association hosts 17 walks across North Carolina. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Since 1989, the Alzheimer’s Association® mobilized millions of Americans in the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk®; now the Alzheimer’s Association is continuing to lead the way with Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Together, we can end Alzheimer’s.
We’re moving forward with plans to host the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® in person this fall. We are planning every Walk with the health and safety of our constituents, staff and volunteers as our top priorities. All events will implement safety protocols including physical distancing, masks (where required), contactless registration, hand sanitizing stations and more. We will continue to closely monitor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local guidelines to ensure Walk events adhere to recommendations and are safe for attendees, as well as offer options to participate online and in your neighborhood.
2021 NORTH CAROLINA WALK DATES
Alamance County – 9.25.21
Asheville – 10.9.21
Charlotte – 10.23.21
Fayetteville – 10.30.21
Gaston/Cleveland/Lincoln – 10.9.21
Guilford County – 10.16.21
Henderson County – 9.25.21
Hickory – 10.31.21
Iredell County – 9.25.21
Jacksonville – 10.16.21
Moore County – 9.25.21
Mount Airy – 9.18.21
New Bern – 10.23.21
Rowan-Cabarrus – 10.30.21
Triangle – 10.9.21
Wilmington – 11.6.21
Winston-Salem – 11.6.21