By Tristan Fitzpatrick
Sisters Melissa Poland-Knapik and Candy Thornhill both remember one thing about their mother: she inspired them.
“She was awesome,” Candy said. “She was a go getter, a worker, and I feel like us kids have taken on that trait, which is good. My dad was busy trying to build a business so she was the main caretaker. We held the line because of her.”
Melissa and Candy’s mother, Valerie influenced the mothers they became. “I recall a conversation I had with her and I as a new Mom,” Melissa recounted, “she told me ‘that the hardest job you will ever have is being a Mom.’ I must have given her a terrifying look because she quickly added, that ‘it is also the most rewarding.’”
Valerie always valued strong family connections and made sure the family always had time to spend together. She would plan parties and organize barbeques for the family to spend time together.
Melissa and Candy both remember these times as their favorite memories of their mom. “She loved having anything to celebrate,” Candy said. “In summer, she’d be out by the pool and letting everyone know that they were welcome. And there would always be food!” Valerie always brought a special touch to everything she did. “The little things like shopping for a homecoming dress, taking a drive to the next event and family gatherings were best when my Mom put them together,” Melissa said.
When Valerie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 50 it came as a shock to the family. Valerie had been experiencing symptoms for some time but her doctor had attributed the changes to depression. After she was diagnosed, Valerie still found joy in her family, especially her grandchildren. “Even when she was sick and didn’t know people by name, when the grandkids walked in the room she lit up,” Candy said. “She loved them, and she always called them her babies when she didn’t know their name.” Valerie passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2009 at 59 years. “She loved her grandkids,” Candy said, “they were the light of her life. I guess I blessed her with being a grandma at an early age so at least she had a few years to enjoy them.”
Melissa and Candy have seen some of the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s begin to change as people learn more about the disease. “The Alzheimer’s Association has helped bring this disease to the light,” Melissa said. “In 2000, when our mom faced the diagnosis it was a really dirty word. There was little information or acceptance to the diagnosis of the disease.”
To help change the way people see Alzheimer’s and fight the stigma they felt after their mother’s diagnosis, Melissa and Candy started participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. “You don’t feel as alone,” Candy said, “you know there are other people dealing with this disease. It’s kind of a healing process too, when you get to turn around and help other people.”
Melissa and Candy lead team Do-Walkers at the Tri-Cities Walk to End Alzheimer’s. You can join Melissa, Candy and hundreds of other affected by Alzheimer’s at the Tri-Cities Walk to End Alzheimer’s September 10. Start your team today at alz.org/walk.