Melissa Anderson’s Walk Story

It was the year 2001. I was on winter break from Sonoma State University. I had a scholarship for running hurdles on the track team and was studying Kinesiology.  I remember pulling into Grandma Ukropec’s snow-filled driveway and I noticed the front door ajar. I walked into her house calling her name and she wasn’t there. The couch was moved and there were towels on the floor. I called my mom in a panic. She called around and we found out she was in the hospital with a broken hip. She had fallen in the snow by the mailbox. It turns out she was laying out in the snow for several hours before someone found her. I decided to take a semester off of college to help care for her while she did physical therapy. My parents weren’t able to take time off and grandma was only 72 years old so we figured she would bounce back quickly.  

Wow! What an adventure I was in for. I was 20 years old and had no idea what I was getting into.  Grandma was quiet and didn’t want to do anything! Nothing! Just watch Bonanza on TV, but when it was 5 o’clock she would say in her sweet southern accent “Ya know what I haven’t had in a long time……a rotisserie chicken from Albertsons.” So I drove down to the store and brought back a chicken. She had the biggest smile on her face. The next day at 5 o’clock…“Ya know what I haven’t had in a long time?” Well, this went on for days. Needless to say, I can no longer eat a rotisserie chicken.

One day the occupational therapist came and I told her what had been happening with Grandma regarding not wanting to bathe, wanting the same foods, and her very repetitive talk. I thought something wasn’t right but I was young and thought this was “normal” aging. She mentioned that maybe grandma had Alzheimer’s. I did some research and spoke to my mom but didn’t believe it. Grandma was in her early 70’s. She had an active life and worked hard.

At this time my mom left her job to live with Grandma full time, and I went back to Sonoma State to finish my degree and would come up every couple of months to visit and help out. My dad would stay in Moraga to work and on the weekends he drove up to Nevada City to be with my mom. About two years after Grandma fell we took her to the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center to get evaluated. Her score was 11/30 on the mini-mental state exam which met the criteria for a diagnosis of dementia. 

About three years after the diagnosis I got the call that Grandma was on hospice. My 6-month-old daughter, Katelynn, and I packed up a suitcase and I kissed my hubby goodbye and told him we would be back soon. Three and half weeks later grandma entered heaven. I remember it like it was yesterday. The hospice nurse was there with us. She was singing Home on the Range.  Right when she sang the verse “Then give me a land where the bright diamond sand,  Flows leisurely down to the stream, Where the graceful white swan goes gliding along, Like a maid in a heavenly dream.” Grandma took her last breath.

Through this experience, I have learned what I was born to do. Working at a senior facility I see the fear and stigma daily of the word “Alzheimer’s” with the residents and family members. I want to change that but I can’t do it alone! Alzheimer’s is scary! I am scared of it and I am 40 years old, but my hope is that we can educate people about the disease. I hope we can teach people how to care for those with Alzheimer’s because it isn’t easy. I recall many challenging moments with my grandma: her not knowing who I was; episodes of hitting, yelling, throwing things; and sitting on the front porch naked. All of these memories have shaped who I am and how I relate to seniors.  

Daily I work with memory care residents and help engage them in a healthy and active lifestyle. What I didn’t know several years ago, and what I couldn’t do for my grandma I am able to do with many seniors and have been doing it for the last 12 years. With my personal experience, I have grown and learned about Alzheimer’s. I feel I am a voice to help educate and fundraise for this important cause, and that is Why I Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

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