The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) has named Maddie Putnam of Decorah as a runner-up in its national 2020 Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness College Scholarship Essay Contest and awarded her a $500 college scholarship. Maddie was chosen from nearly 2,000 entries nationwide for her essay about her experiences with her father who lives with Alzheimer’s disease and how it impacted her life.

“Maddie’s heartfelt essay about her father, his battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the lessons she learned from those experiences will help raise Alzheimer’s awareness and provide strength and support to other families who are dealing with the same challenges,” said Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., AFA’s President and CEO. “We congratulate Maddie, thank her for sharing her story, and are grateful for her efforts in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.”

Maddie’s essay focuses on her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and how it impacted her and her family. Her father was diagnosed with young-onset Alzheimer’s disease when Maddie was just 12. She described her father as having been a well-spoken attorney, who spent a lot of time with her, helping her with school and cooking or watching golf together. Not long after her father was diagnosed with the disease, he stopped driving and working. Maddie and her mother eventually had to move her dad into a nursing home’s dementia care unit so that he could get better care. Now, although her father is still physically active, he barely speaks. Maddie visits her father almost every day, sometimes just sitting or walking silently. Occasionally, her father will call her by one of her old nicknames and this reassures her that he is still with her.

Maddie wishes to raise awareness to make sure that no other child has to go through the experience she has. She and her family have organized fundraisers and participated in Alzheimer’s walks. Although her father doesn’t have a voice anymore, she is determined to speak on his behalf and continue to raise awareness.

AFA’s annual Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness College Scholarship Essay Contest asks high school seniors to describe how Alzheimer’s disease impacts their lives, what they’ve learned in the face of coping with it, and how they plan to help others who are affected by it. This year, AFA awarded over $41,000 in college scholarships to 59 students from across the country. Since the program’s inception, AFA has awarded nearly $300,000 in College scholarships to students affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about AFA’s Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness College Scholarship Essay Contest, call AFA at 866.232.8484 or visit www.alzfdn.org

 

 

The Sound of Silence

By Maddie Putnam, Decorah High School Class of 2020

“Hey Dad! It’s Maddie! How is your day going?” 

Silence. 

“What did you do today?” 

Silence. 

Why am I surprised that my dad’s not conversational today? Over the past year, one-sided conversations have become the norm when visiting him. My dad was 57 when he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease. I was just 12 at the time. The first couple of years, nothing really changed, but then, all at once, everything changed. He stopped driving and working full-time as an attorney. Then he stopped working altogether at the job he once loved. About a year and a half ago, my mom and I moved my dad into a nursing home. We simply could not safely take care of him at home any longer. The day he moved out, a piece of me moved with him - there would be no more movie nights or playful cooking “contests,” no more being woken up by him up in the morning, no more of the childhood I once had and loved. My dad now lives comfortably in a nursing home dementia-care unit. I visit almost every single day. 

Alzheimer’s is a strange disease. My dad is still physically activeand can walk quite well - but mentally he is a fragment of the person he used to be, just like the other residents of the dementia unit that is now his home. My dad, as a lawyer, was once the most well-spoken man I knew, but now the praise he receives when he speaks just one full sentence is almost as exuberant as what a toddler receives for taking his first steps. People with Alzheimer’s disease act and live completely unlike how they did before the disease; they are shells of the people they used to be. I am reminded of this every day during my visits with my dad, but that only makes me more determined to remember all the good times I had with him.

Every weekday morning when I was growing up, my dad would wake me up with a song, make me breakfast, and then coach me on my spelling words for school. Guess who aced every single spelling test? We would also watch the Weather Channel and predict if the meteorologist’s forecast would be right or not. Every Saturday, we would make scrambled eggs and watch cartoons together. My dad would scramble the eggs and let me add the cheese to finish the dish. Sundays were for making pancakes, going to Sunday school, and watching golf on TV. My dad’s pancakes were famous among my friends. He would let me dump in the mix and then top the cakes with chocolate chips. He taught me that you need to wait until the pancake bubbles - once you see bubbles, you know it’s time to flip the pancake. 

Whenever my dad needed to pack for a trip, I would help him. He would lay out everything he needed, and I would sit next to him, helping him fold clothes, pack toiletries, and figure out outfits. Packing became our thing and still is one of my favorite things to do; it’s just a lot more lonely these days. Now I also cook pancakes alone and watch the Weather Channel alone. I slowly lost my partner in crime in these activities to Alzheimer’s disease. 

Randomly, my dad will just call me by my old nicknames (like “Bug” and “Matt”), and I know he is still with me, if only for a moment. Most days that I visit him, though, we walk or sit in silence. If we walk, he pulls my arm and I hold his hand as we move together through the halls of the nursing home or the paths of an adjacent prairie. When his legs don’t cooperate, I read to him and play music through my iPhone. I spoon feed him ice cream when his brain can’t direct his hands to do it himself. I pull the napkin out of his mouth when he gets confused and tries to eat it. I help him blow his nose, and give him reports of his favorite sports team, the Iowa Hawkeyes. I ask him questions, praying for an answer but bracing for silence. 

Sometimes we wander, and he takes me where he needs to go; other times, we just sit, my head on his shoulder as he stares off. Sometimes he strings random words together, and I nod and say, “Is that so?” even as I hope for more words from him. Sometimes we dance, and other times we cry. Before my dad got sick, I had only seen him cry three times: When his mom passed away, when our Christmas tree fell down and shattered our ornaments, and when he was telling us about his diagnosis. Now he will randomly just start crying. I always wonder what is going on inside his head, and I worry that he’s afraid and lonely. 

I try to make sure he’s not. I talk to him about my life, hoping some of it resonates. My mom does the same, thinking (hoping) that maybe he understands. My older sister brings her young kids to the nursing home, and we all play games with him. I bring him a lot of desserts, but he always eats them. Most times, I have to coax him to open his mouth and then pop little pieces in, but he still seems to enjoy the treats. One thing never fails: every time I leave, I tell him I love him, and he responds the same. Usually, I give him a kiss on the cheek, and he instantly responds with one on my head. Occasionally, he will call me by one of my old nicknames, or he’ll say I’m his little girl.

It is times like those that I recall how my dad helped shape me. My dad coached me in every sport I ever tried, even when he knew nothing about itlike soccer. He stepped up and coached my mock trial team even though he was always busy at work. The best advice he ever gave me was to have fun. “If you’re not having fun, you’re in the wrong place,” he would say. “Having fun should be the number-one goal.”

Alzheimer’s disease has taken my best friend, the person most like me, my mentor, my dad - and turned him into a shell of a person. I never ever want another child to witness and live what I have experienced, but more importantly, I never want another parent to forget their children. 

Given all the advances we have seen with treating other diseases thanks to modern medicine, I do believe we can find the first survivor of Alzeheimer’s disease. That is one reason my family and I organized a fundraiser that raised over $36,000 for Alzheimer’s research in 2017. I was also the second leading fundraiser for the Northeast Iowa Walk to End Alzheimer’s last year. I have twice been chosen by the Alzheimer’s Association to speak on my dad’s behalf, and I was proud to do it both times. Alzheimer’s disease has been the focus of a couple of my class presentations during my high school years, and it is the focus of my entry in Iowa’s high school individual speech contest this year. 

In fact, I am determined to never stop talking about Alzheimer’s until we have the first survivor because spreading awareness is key to raising the funds we need to beat this disease. If we can cure smallpox and polio, there is no reason why we can’t cure Alzheimer’s disease. Until that first survivor is found, I will not cease working to make sure others know how important it is that we find a cure. My dad may no longer have his voice to speak up about Alzheimer’s disease, but I still have mine. And I am going to continue to use it.