Fighting Alzheimer’s through the arts…and cars


Written by Kacie Thomas

Helen Borley of Modesto loved sewing. She used to let her children pick out the patterns and fabric for the clothes she made. Her daughter, Julie Nelson, is honoring Helen’s creativity with “Cars, Crafts and Community for the Cure,” a fundraiser for The Longest Day.

Developing a passion for sewing and creativity

Julie Nelson credits her mother for inspiring her family to fight the Alzheimer’s disease through the arts. When Julie and her five siblings were growing up, Helen was a stay-at-home mom. “She was just like June Cleaver,” Julie shared.

Helen, Julie, Katrina & Andrea making jam together

Julie never had store-bought clothes. No one ever knew that the family didn’t have much money, because Helen made her dresses.

Helen took Julie and her siblings to the local craft store to get patterns and fabric. “I would go to school and come home to a brand new, homemade dress,” Julie said. “It was amazing.”

Helen continued the tradition into the next generation. She would make dresses and Easter bunnies for all 26 of her grandchildren. Julie developed a passion for costume-making and creativity because of her mother.

The early signs

While Helen passed away within 18 months of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, Julie noticed that things weren’t quite right years before Helen’s diagnosis.

In 2005, Julie, her sister and Helen traveled to Europe. “I have the best memories of her in 2005,” Julie said.

While physically, Helen seemed fine, Julie noticed a couple of personality changes. “She got really mean to people,” Julie said. “Mom said, ‘Better off to be a mean old lady than a nice one,’ and that was never her.”

Helen, at the family’s lake cabin

Julie initially shrugged this off as Helen’s feelings toward being widowed. Later she realized that it was an early sign that something was wrong.

In 2007, Helen had a medical episode. When Julie took Helen to the doctor, they asked what medicines she was taking.

Helen didn’t know her medications, even though she had been taking them on her own. “That was my big wake-up call,” shared Julie. “It made me realize we need to manage her medicines better.”

The onset of Alzheimer’s

In 2007, Julie went over to her mother’s rental home because there was an issue with the air conditioner. While Helen knew electrical circuits very well, she couldn’t recall the words “air conditioner.”

She pointed to it and called it a “silver box.” Just a few minutes later, she couldn’t remember the word, “orange.” Julie scheduled an appointment for Helen to see her doctor. He diagnosed Helen with generalized memory loss.

Separation and struggle

Julie was the only local daughter and had to tell her mother that she couldn’t drive anymore. “Having to do that was tough,” shared Julie. “She was still verbal and living independently but it wasn’t safe for her to drive.”

Shortly after, the family decided to move Helen to a memory care center. “Her favorite thing to do was watch The Hallmark Channel,” Julie said. “She wanted to sit together and hold hands.”

Helen’s final days

Helen had been at the memory care center for about a year. To help try and keep memories alive, Julie and her family put up pictures with their names.

“I didn’t wait for her to guess,” Julie said. “I always just came in, said my name and told her I love her.”

Julie has a suggestion for other caregivers. “Always talk to them even if they’re not going to respond,” encouraged Julie. “They hear you.”

Katrina and Julie – Julie designed and sewed Katrina’s wedding gown

During Helen’s final days, she was hearing impaired. Right before Helen passed away, Julie and all but one of her siblings had checked in.

Julie asked her mom if she needed to hear from Tom, Julie’s brother. “Her eyes lit up,” Julie said. “I put the phone up to her ear as she was actively dying, and he told her it was ok to go.”

Taking action through the arts

Julie’s children never forgot about how Helen’s creativity touched their lives. Julie’s daughter, Katrina Nelson, has made it her mission over the last three years to research how brain activity in older adults could be impacted by art.

The first year Julie participated in The Longest Day, she invited friends and artists from the community to a barbecue and swim party at her home. Katrina live-streamed an art lesson to everyone in her living room. “She was part of it even though she was hundreds of miles away,” Julie said.

A family affair

In 2018, Julie and Katrina were busy planning Katrina’s wedding. Julie’s son, Ryan Nelson, created and ran the family’s event for The Longest Day.

Ryan, in middle, at the car show with his co-workers

Ryan got his coworkers from CarMax to help him host a car show. The CarMax Cares program helps their employees support nonprofits that are important to them.

In the first two years, Julie, Katrina and Ryan raised over $2,800 for Alzheimer’s research, care and support. They are already working on this year’s event for The Longest Day, to honor Helen.

The family is combining Julie and Katrina’s love of arts and crafts with Ryan’s interest in cars. “Cars, Crafts and Community for the Cure” will combine a car show with a craft fair and food vendors.

The family-friendly event will take place on Saturday, June 22. It will be at Dutch Hollow Farms in Modesto, popular for their spring tulips and fall pumpkin patch. They have already raised over $900 towards their $10,000 goal.

The Nelson family invites you to attend their fundraiser. Support Julie’s fundraiser or start your own team for The Longest Day.