North bay woman finds her purpose after caring for grandmother

Melissa Anderson was 20 years old when she put her life on pause to care for her grandmother. Through that experience she found her purpose in life, to help care for others living with the disease. Twenty years later, Melissa not only works in the senior care industry but also volunteers her time with the Walk to End Alzheimer’s® planning committee. Her hope is to create a world without Alzheimer’s disease.

Why I Walk
By Melissa Anderson

Falling in the snow
In 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 pulled into Grandma Ukropec’s snow-filled driveway and noticed that the front door was ajar. 

When I walked into her house, I began calling her name, but she wasn’t there. The couch was moved and there were towels on the floor. I called my mom in a panic. My mom called around and we found out Grandma was in the hospital with a broken hip. 

Grandma had fallen in the snow by her mailbox. She had laid there, in the snow, for several hours before someone found her. 

Melissa at age 20, with her grandmother

Rotisserie chicken
I decided to take a semester off of college to help care for Grandma 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.  

What an adventure I was in for. 

At the time I was only 20 years old and had no idea what I was getting into. Grandma was quiet and wasn’t interested in doing anything. All she wanted to do was watch Bonanza on TV.

One day, at five o’clock she asked, in her sweet southern accent, “Ya know what I haven’t had in a long time?…..a rotisserie chicken from Albertsons.” I drove down to the store and brought back a chicken. When I came home, she had the biggest smile on her face. 

However, the next day at five o’clock, Grandma asked, “Ya know what I haven’t had in a long time?….A rotisserie chicken from Albertsons.” This went on for days. Needless to say, I can no longer eat rotisserie chicken.

This isn’t normal aging
One day Grandma’s occupational therapist came by and I told her what had been happening with Grandma. Grandma didn’t want to bathe, only wanted to eat the same foods, and kept repeating herself. I thought something wasn’t right but I was young and thought this was “normal” aging

She suggested that Grandma might have Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to believe it. Grandma was in her early 70’s. She had had an active life and had worked hard. However, I did some research and spoke to my mom.

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. 

A few years later we took Grandma to UC Davis Alzheimer Disease Center to get her evaluated. She was diagnosed with dementia related to vascular disease and possibly also Alzheimer’s.

Getting married
After my mom moved in with Grandma, I would come up every couple months from college to visit and help out. My dad would stay in Moraga to work and on the weekends he would drive up to Nevada City to be with my mom. 

During this time I met the man who would become my husband. We decided to get married in Nevada City because he knew how important it was for me to have Grandma at our wedding. Being married in Nevada City was the only possible way for her to be there. 

Melissa on her wedding day, with her grandmother

We planned the wedding for October 28 at Trinity Church. We had hired a care partner for grandma and I was so excited. That morning I was told that Grandma had had a bad night. She wasn’t doing well and wouldn’t be able to make it to the wedding. 

Sad and disappointed, I put a smile on my face. I was ready to marry the man of my dreams. As I was walking down the aisle, smiling and staring into my future husband’s eyes, something caught my attention. In the front pew to my left was my grandma. Right then my eyes filled with happy tears and I could barely keep it together. It was such a magical day.

‘Home on the Range’
About three years after the diagnosis I got the call that Grandma was in hospice. My six month old daughter Katelynn and I packed up a suitcase. 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.

Why I Walk
I recall many challenging moments with my grandma: her not knowing who I was; episodes of yelling and throwing things; and her sitting on the front porch naked. All of these memories have shaped who I am and how I relate to seniors.  

Through this experience I have learned what I was born to do. I work at a senior care facility. I see what family members and those living with the disease go through every day. I want to see an end to Alzheimer’s disease, but I can’t do it alone. 

Melissa at her first walk with Team Spring Lake Village, 2008

My hope is that the Alzheimer’s Association® can educate people about the disease and how to care for those living with dementia, because it isn’t easy.

For the last 13 years working in the senior care industry, I have learned how to better care for those living with the disease. I wish I had known this information when I was trying to care for Grandma.

I feel like I am a voice that can help educate and fundraise for this important cause, and that is why I Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

You can join Melissa’s team, Walkin’ for Grandma, or form your own team and join us for the Sonoma-Marin Walk to End Alzheimer’s on October 9 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Not in Sonoma or Marin Counties? Find a walk near you at alz.org/walk.

Team Walkin’ for Grandma has partnered with A Spice Above on a fundraiser for their Walk team. Customers who use the promo code GRANDMA will receive a discount on their order and 30% of the proceeds will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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