Teen Chronicles Loss of Grandmother's 'Dragon Spirit' to Alzheimer's Disease
NEW YORK, April 27, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Clara Luu, 18, of San Jose, CA, used to liken her grandmother to a mighty dragon, but over the last three years she has watched her grandmother slowly lose her "headstrong and determined dragon-spirit" to Alzheimer's disease. While the progression has brought conflicting emotions for the teen, it has also nurtured a surprising strength to become the person her grandmother once was, according to the teen's powerful essay that won her top prize in an annual college scholarship competition sponsored by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA).
AFA announced today that Luu, who plans to attend Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA next fall, is the 2011 grand-prize winner of the $5,000 AFA Teens for Alzheimer's Awareness College Scholarship. First runner-up is Erin Rolland of Highland, IN, and second runner-up is Nicolle Ostrander of Chase, MI. Coincidentally, all three high school seniors wrote about their grandmothers.
For these and other teens who flooded AFA with scholarship applications, their insightful essays generally reflected the harsh impact of Alzheimer's disease on their loved ones, and the practical and, moreover, the emotional toll on themselves. Common threads included caregiving responsibilities, the tremendous pain when parents, grandparents and other loved ones forget their favorite pastimes together or even the teen's name, the realities of wandering and taking away car keys, and acceptance.
AFA established the annual scholarship in 2008 to give teens a creative outlet to reflect on the impact of Alzheimer's disease on themselves, their families and their communities.
"We are continually taken by the tremendous depth of emotions that these teens endure as a result of Alzheimer's disease," said Eric J. Hall, AFA's president and CEO. "These essays demonstrate powerful examples of resilience and compassion that we can pass on to other young people facing similar situations."
Currently, Alzheimer's disease affects as many as 5.1 million Americans, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. While the brain disorder primarily affects people 65 and older, a rare form occurs in people as young as in their 30's.
Luu's grandmother, Tung Tat, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 79.
"When I see my Amah now, frail and hollow-spirited, her hair streaked with snow, her jade scales chipped and her breathing shallow, I am not sure—no, I am certain—that I do not know her. She is not the mighty dragon, on the outside or on the inside," wrote Luu. "I cannot admit that I know her, because if I knew her, then I would be admitting to myself that there is a new Amah now, and that she is mine, and I shall never have the old one back."
In her essay, Rolland confides other emotions unearthed by this experience. She travels to the cemetery to come to terms with her grandmother's death, delivering a letter of apology for not being patient with her and not spending more time with her while she was alive, and then for not visiting the grave until two years after her passing.
"Yes, it is hard to cope with her loss when she was such a huge part of my life. But what would be most unfortunate is if our family could not remember her as she once was: a best friend, a wonderful wife, an amazing mother, a kind mammaw, just because of a disease," suggested Rolland, who plans to attend Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.
Ostrander recalls all that Alzheimer's disease stole from her grandmother, including her memory, independence and "motherhood." In contrast, the teen also recalled the gifts that the disease brought her before her grandmother passed away: among them, her grandmother whispered the teen's name one last time in her ear despite severe memory loss. Ostrander will be a freshman at Ferris State University in Big Rapid, MI next fall.
Illustrating part of the intent of the competition, Luu's participation was therapeutic.
"As I write this essay," she wrote, "I am also confronting my own guilt, which lessens as this description of my Amah brings my happy memories of her back to life."
Now, in winning the competition, Luu said she hopes to "share my experiences with others who may be struggling with the same feelings I had, and to maybe help them find their own rays of sunshine to hang onto."
The annual scholarship is one of the many features of AFA Teens, a division started by a teenager and aimed at educating and engaging youth and connecting them with peers whose family members are affected by the disease. Teens are encouraged to express themselves on a bulletin board, seek support from AFA social workers, and set up AFA Teens chapters in their community.
In testament to the countless teens that AFA Teens serves each year, Hall will accept the prestigious "Rosalinde Gilbert Innovations in Alzheimer's Disease Caregiving Legacy Award" on behalf of AFA Teens tonight at the 2011 American Society on Aging's "Aging in America" conference in San Francisco. The award by the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and the Family Caregiver Alliance recognizes programs that "exemplify outstanding service and innovative strategies in serving individuals with Alzheimer's and their caregivers."
According to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and United Hospital Fund, more than one million children nationwide care for sick or disabled parents and grandparents; Alzheimer's disease and related dementias were the most prevalent illnesses. About 80 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease are cared for at home.
For more information about AFA Teens and to read the winning scholarship essays, visit www.afateens.org.
The Alzheimer's Foundation of America, based in New York, is a national nonprofit organization that unites more than 1,600 member organizations nationwide with the goal of providing optimal care and services to individuals confronting dementia, and to their caregivers and families. Its services include counseling by licensed social workers via a toll-free hot line and Skype, educational materials, a free quarterly magazine for caregivers, and professional training. For more information about AFA, call toll-free 866-AFA-8484 or visit www.alzfdn.org.
SOURCE Alzheimer's Foundation of America