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4 Lessons I Learned Volunteering for Someone With Alzheimer's Disease

In my junior year of high school, I received an email from my National Honor Society advisor saying that a family was asking for a volunteer to help a woman, Susan, with Alzheimer’s disease who lived at a local assisted living by taking her dog on walks during the weekend.

Alzheimer’s disease has affected my family. My paternal grandmother, who I called Mémé (which is an informal name for grandmother in French), passed away in her sleep when I was in fourth grade after living with Alzheimer’s for seven years.

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I was shielded from my Mémé’s Alzheimer’s. Not intentionally, but I could not speak to her, as during my childhood, I only spoke English, and she only spoke French. Before we visited her and my grandfather, Pépé (an informal name for grandfather in French) every summer, Dad told me that she may not have recognize us right away. She always met us with a warm smile, a hug, and said hello – well actually “Bonjour.” I did not understand, nor did Dad tell me then, that she always asked him who we were, and towards the end, asked Dad who he was too.

I couldn’t drive at that time, so I had to talk to Dad to see if he’d be OK driving me on Saturday and Sunday mornings. When I told him that it was to help out someone with Alzheimer’s disease, he said of course but looked sad. I know he was thinking of Mémé. I emailed my NHS advisor back saying that I’d love to help out. When I volunteered to help, I came in with a bit of anxiety. I knew there was a very large chance that she would never remember me, and all meetings would be new. As a dog person, I wondered how she would react to a stranger taking her dog away from her for a walk.

I soon realized my anxiety was unfounded, and I volunteered to walk her dog every weekend for three to four months. I was not a caregiver by any means, but I still feel like I learned some lessons about what it’s like to help out someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Here are four of them.

  1. You can still have fun spending time with a person with Alzheimer’s disease. She always greeted me with a smile and asked for my name. She told me about how much she loves her dog and was happy that he gets to go on more walks now. We had this same discussion every time I saw her. After a few walks, her dog was always very happy to see me, which led her to be even more comfortable that me, who she saw as a stranger, was trustworthy.
  2. People with Alzheimer’s disease shouldn’t be painted as “mean.” I had heard that people with Alzheimer’s disease can be mean, as they can be prone to aggression. But one time I saw Susan tell a caretaker who was having a bad day that she’s doing an amazing job. On a different occasion Susan told another person to stop when they started to criticize how “tight” my leggings were. It’s true that I only had a limited snapshot of Susan’s day, but she, like my Mémé, was always kind. And she went above and beyond to make sure other people were treated OK, too.
  3. Even if families work tirelessly to support a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, they may still need help. The woman’s family visited her every single day. When I talked to one of her sons, the one who emailed my NHS advisor, he told me their family was so grateful for my help because they were stretched so thin. I love dogs, so walking a dog twice a week was not a lot of work.
  4. Saying goodbye to someone who will not remember you is hard. Susan had to move to a more secure assisted living home an hour away. After taking her dog on a last walk, I told Susan that I hope that her move goes well. She told me she was happy I got to meet her dog that day. She couldn’t remember the three to four months, and realizing that was difficult. I am glad that I got the opportunity to help Susan, her family, and her dog out.

Getty photo by KatarzynaBialasiewicz