North Bay volunteer gathers friends from around the world to support her older sister
When Judy’s sister Sheri was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the two of them signed up to participate in their local Walk to End Alzheimer’s®. An avid traveler, Sheri pulled together friends from all over the world to join her at Walk. Eight years later, Sheri’s disease has progressed, and she can no longer attend but this hasn’t stopped Judy. Each year, Judy continues to reach out to Sheri’s friends and give them a reason to come together for a common cause – to support Sheri. Judy continues to support Sheri and others facing this disease.
Sheri was a woman who made traveling her life. When she wasn’t traveling the world herself, she was working in the travel industry based out of San Francisco. She loved exploring, meeting new people and trying new things. Sheri had a unique ability to make connections everywhere she went. Many of the people she met became good friends, people she continued to keep in touch with until Alzheimer’s made that impossible.
“There are many photos with names written on the back and I have no idea where these places are,” said Judy Halverson, Sheri’s sister. “She was into art, jazz and beautiful artwork. She lived life to the fullest.”
Recognizing the signs
As a single woman, Sheri was self-employed, lived alone and loved to walk to work every day. However, as she grew older, Sheri found that she was constantly disoriented and scattered. She complained to Judy about her memory, but the sisters figured it was just a sign of normal aging.
Eventually Sheri decided to retire. However, it wasn’t until she went on a trip with Judy and her family that Judy began to see some signs that something wasn’t quite right with her sister. “She was disoriented sometimes and had trouble ordering from a menu,” said Judy. “Then when I visited her, I could see how confused she was within her home. Her paperwork was a mess and some of her bills hadn’t been paid. I found sticky notes everywhere and things put away in weird places. That had never been the way she managed her life.”
When Sheri’s next doctor appointment came up, Judy decided to go with her. Judy mentioned her concerns to Sheri’s doctor. “I mentioned I was concerned about her memory,” said Judy. “That’s how we started going down that path.”
After some tests, Sheri was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Knowing that Sheri couldn’t continue to live alone in the city with this newfound diagnosis, Sheri moved closer to her sister in Napa. While touring one of the assisted living facilities in the area, an employee mentioned the Alzheimer’s Association® and that she might be interesting in attending one of their support groups.
The Association offers peer-or professionally led groups for caregivers, individuals living with Alzheimer’s and others dealing with the disease. All support groups are facilitated by trained individuals. Many locations offer specialized groups for children, individuals with younger-onset and early-stage Alzheimer’s, adult caregivers and others with specific needs.
“I participated in my support group for three years,” said Judy. “I learned as much as I could. Listening to other stories and also offering ideas to other families, it was very meaningful.”
Judy wanted to learn as much as she could about the disease. This led her and her family to attend several education conferences hosted by the Association. These conferences were designed to teach people like Judy, a family caregiver, how to better communicate with and care for their loved one living with the disease.
Judy’s favorite conferences were the ones that featured Teepa Snow. “I went to Teepa Snow’s presentations half a dozen times,” said Judy. “I was always able to stay ahead of what was happening [with Sheri]. Some of the strategies [I learned at the conferences] still work.
“I think my strength is trying to educate myself as much as possible. For people who are just starting this journey, I refer them to the literature and [learn] strategies from [the people who face this disease every day].”
Sheri also attended a support group for people living with the disease. While she was there, she learned about Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Napa Valley and knew she had to be a part of it. Judy says, “[Sheri] said to me, ‘Oh yes, I want to do that, absolutely!’ and then she spearheaded it.”
Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest fundraiser fighting this disease. Walk is fighting for a different future. For families facing the disease today, for more time and for treatments.
Sheri reached out to her community of friends worldwide. She contacted old friends from high school, coworkers and people she’d met on her travels. Sheri told them of her disease and why this cause was important to her. “I still use the same email group Sheri originally set up,” said Judy. “I send it out to coworkers, a woman she went to Europe with in her twenties and friends from high school. My unique component is to let everyone know as far back as you can. People pop up from Sheri’s life from childhood. This has been really meaningful for me to see it.”
Continuing to show up
The first year, Sheri’s team – Sheri’s Friends & Family – had more than 30 people come out on walk day to show their support for Sheri. It was a great way for old friends near and far to come together and have a reunion of sorts. After the event, everyone was invited over to Judy’s house for a lunch and to continue the fun.
Sadly, as Sheri’s disease has progressed, many have a hard time watching the friend they knew disappear into the disease. Sheri can no longer participate in Walk day or at the lunch, but that doesn’t stop Judy from continuing to reach out and support her sister.
That said, the team still has roughly 15 people who continue to show up and Walk. “There are only two or three people from Napa,” said Judy. “Everyone travels from [San Francisco], Sacramento or from where we were raised. It’s a social gathering for people. There is a lot of history with her team.
“It’s dwindled and there are not as many people. It was a social event for all the people that care about her. It’s more difficult now, it’s too hard for them to see her. At first it was really hard to understand this but some people just can’t do it. I’ve accepted that.”
Sharing her story
After her first Walk, Judy was inspired. When someone from the Association asked Judy if she’d be interested in sharing her story on the Walk stage the following year, Judy was happy to do so. “The first year I told Sheri’s story, I stood there and cried. It was pretty fresh still.”
Since then, Judy has really grown as a speaker. She now speaks at kickoff and celebration events for Walk. “I really emphasize [the importance of] trying to stay ahead [of the disease] and [getting] educated. I hear so many people say, ‘I’m telling her over and over again!’ I think all families should understand that [their loved one] just doesn’t understand that [any more].”
When Sheri was first diagnosed, Judy was worried Sheri would be afraid all the time about everything. Now, armed with education and hearing other’s experiences, she no longer thinks that. Judy encourages new caregivers to read and learn as much as you can. “I wish I could have understood Sheri’s diagnosis earlier,” said Judy. “Perhaps she would not have had to travel the confusion by herself during the beginning of the disease.”
Today, Judy spends her spare time volunteering on the Walk Committee. This year will be her eighth year and she consider herself to be a worker bee – filling in where she is most needed. For Judy, one of the best parts of volunteering is the easy access to information on the disease.
“[As a volunteer] I’ve learned more about the disease and heard other people’s stories,” said Judy. “I take my knowledge and share it with others. It’s joyful to see what families are trying to do for the cause. Will I stay [on the Walk Committee] once Sherri passes? I have no idea, but for now [being a volunteer is] part of who I am.”