Why I Walk: For My Papa

By Amber Helbling, Walk to End Alzheimer’s Participant

My grandpa, Les, was an outgoing, kind and compassionate person. He never met a stranger because his welcoming nature had a way of making everyone feel like they had been friends for years. We always joked that every time we went out with him, there would be at least one person that would come up, say hello and strike up a conversation about how and when they knew him. 

He loved his family more than anything. His wife, Carol, was the love of his life and they shared 52 wonderful years together. They traveled all over the world, seeing all sorts of amazing things. Even when the traveling slowed down, they still found special moments in everyday life, like sharing coffee together every single morning. 

Papa was always there for us. He could always be found in the crowd at all of my brother’s and my events from academic graduations, and performances, to volleyball, basketball, and softball games. There was rarely a time we didn’t see him in the audience cheering us on and he loved gathering together with family for holidays and birthdays. 

He genuinely loved to be around his people and he made sure they knew that he loved and cared for them. You couldn’t be around Les without feeling his warmth and joy. He thought he was pretty funny and always had some well-rehearsed jokes he had up his sleeve just to make sure he could make you laugh and put a smile on your face. He was one of the happiest people you would ever meet and his smile was infectious.

Papa reading a card around the holidays

Papa’s Alzheimer’s Progression

I had never experienced Alzheimer’s before my grandpa. Initially, I thought the forgetfulness was a sign of aging and that slowing down was just part of our natural timeline in life. You know, how people get older, and their memories get a bit fuzzy and they slow down. I was processing all of this as a “normal part of life”. 

However, in the 6 months or so before his passing, it all seemed to happen so fast. As the disease progressed, it became apparent things were moving at a rapid pace. He quickly changed from his normal self to someone who was lost and confused constantly. He was more irritable and much quicker to anger. He became someone I almost didn’t recognize, especially because he was the most generous and patient man I had ever known. 

Around this same time, my son, Rhett, was born. Right as the disease got progressively worse. When my grandpa met my son for the first time, it was the most incredible thing for me to watch but he was different. He wasn’t the same loving grandpa I had known him to be when I was growing up. He admired my son, but from afar. He didn’t hold him or try to interact with him nearly as much as he would prior to this disease and it broke my heart. I know that he would’ve been the best great-grandpa to my son because he was the most amazing grandpa to me.

As time went on, I could tell he wasn’t sure why these things were happening and why he was starting to feel this way. It hurt to see him struggling to figure out what was going on, even though we tried to explain it to him. One of the hardest decisions we had to make before the diagnosis was the decision to take his keys away because we worried about his safety behind the wheel. Although our grandma still drove him around and took him out, it was incredibly difficult to take away his right to drive and independence.

You could tell his personality was becoming a lot more reserved. He wasn’t the bright and cheery individual that used to light up a room. He did his best to keep up in conversations but he would get lost. He tried to formulate words but they wouldn’t come out like he wanted. 

The hardest part for me was seeing my favorite person in the whole world become the very opposite of the man I knew him as. He lost his patience, became more and more frustrated, and was not quick to understand or comprehend. He seemed unsure of what was going on most of the time. 

I started to make sure to visit him almost every Sunday. I wanted to see him and my grandma with my son as much as possible. Something inside me told me that things weren’t going well, and that was something I struggled with. I started to take more pictures and videos of him reading to my son. Deep down, I know we might not even have a few years more with him but I never expected it all to happen so fast.

Losing My Loved One

I was in the middle of coaching a high school softball game when I got the news that my grandpa had passed away. I fell to the ground right then and there. I was shocked, angry, and heartbroken. He had been moved from a mental health care facility to a hospital and then suddenly to hospice and I hadn’t been able to see him for a couple of weeks due to visitor restrictions.

Through it all though, he still found a way to smile. We shared laughs and he loved his family more than anything. He had such a positive impression on his community. This was apparent by the number of people who came to his funeral to remember his legacy. Numerous family members, old students and colleagues, and other members of the community gathered to celebrate the life of such a wonderful person.

Take the pictures. Take the video. Save the voicemails. You never know when you are going to want to go back and hear their voice. 

Walking to End Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is one of the most unfair things. You have to lose the person you know and love more than once. They’re physically there, but cognitively, they’re somewhere else. They could be living in the past or maybe they are in and out of the present. Either way, this disease takes your loved ones away from you over and over. It’s emotionally hard on the family but I can’t imagine being the person with Alzheimer’s and feeling constantly confused and unaware of why things aren’t like you think they are. All you can do for those going through it is love unconditionally, give them all the grace you can and meet them where they are at.

This will be our first time doing the Walk to End Alzheimer’s®. My son’s first birthday party is that same afternoon and I can’t think of a better way to start the day than celebrating the greatest person we knew and walking in honor of Papa!

Organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association, give me hope. It’s a good feeling knowing that we are not alone in this and that there are others who are fighting to see a change and find a cure for this disease. I look forward to the advancements in science and increasing awareness in communities because the more people know about this disease, the more ideas there will be leading to more options for treatments in the future for individuals and their families facing and fighting Alzheimer’s.

I miss you Papa, and I sure hope I am making you proud. 

My name is Amber Helbling. I am 31 years old, married to my wife Stephanie and we have a 10-month-old son named Rhett. I was born and raised in Spokane, WA along with my brother; Ross, my parents; my grandparents, great-grandparents, and several other family members. 

My grandpa, Lester Johnson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and passed away April 13, 2022.

You can join Amber in the fight to end Alzheimer’s by walking or making a donation to the cause. Every dollar we raise and more awareness we can create, the closer we can get to finding a cure. Learn more at alzwa.org/walk.

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