Vonnetta Benjamin has volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association Georgia Chapter since 2010.
I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease in December 2009. Going through the experience of watching him battle the disease developed a passion in me: a passion to focus on caregivers and to educate the community about the disease.
In many ways, I felt helpless when I started on my own journey, because I didn’t know about the resources available to me. When I learned about the Alzheimer’s Association, I knew I wanted to help get the word out about everything available to caregivers: the support, the educational materials, the help from others who have also gone through this disease. I can’t stress the importance of alz.org. I can tell a friend in Texas, Los Angeles or Boston about the resources available, and they can hop on the website and find local support.
I started off my work with the Association by working at local health fairs, which put me in a position to meet individuals across the metro Atlanta area. Some people don’t want to think about the disease, or they don’t always want to question the signs they see in their loved ones; I work to pass the information across the table, and tell people that it is okay to take that information home. I say: “You may not need it today, but you may need it later. You may want to pass it on to a friend, or a loved one.” That is so important to realize: this information doesn't necessarily have to be for you. You could help change the life of a neighbor or a colleague.
Becoming an educator and communicating with the public has been such a meaningful experience and has given such purpose to my life. I teach my community about the basics of Alzheimer’s. I help break down how the brain works, how Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain. I use Alzheimer’s Association materials to help people through the process, so they can understand exactly what is happening as the disease progresses.
I also give a step-by-step breakdown of how to cope with Alzheimer’s behaviors, such as wandering. When I do this, it’s so that people have a plan of action in place the next time a behavior arises in their loved one, and so caregivers are better positioned to help both their loved one and themselves.
I am also thrilled to be a committee member of the Greater Atlanta Walk to End Alzheimer’s. I have developed a great team! My siblings have key positions on the committee, and my team reaches out and helps spread awareness to support our fundraising goals. This core group is in the trenches together, getting people from all over the Atlanta area to come together for this purpose that is so important, and so rewarding.
One of our greatest achievements was being just $80,000 short of our 1 million dollar goal for the 2017 Greater Atlanta Walk. I can barely wrap my head around that number, and so many people were responsible for bringing that about through their time and their talents. The end result just astounded me.
In serving my community and the African-American community in particular, I believe in meeting everyone at their own level. Everyone is dealing with a different situation, or is in a different place on their Alzheimer’s journey, so I try my best to understand where each and every person is coming from. They may have frustration, anger, or any other multitude of emotions. In my career as a litigator, I often have opportunities to work with people with an array of emotions and attitudes, and being open and understanding that every approach to a situation can be unique is vital.
Although I know that there is, at times, a lack of diversity displayed at different events or education classes, I am generally very impressed with the people I’ve seen come through the doors. Being open doesn’t come naturally for everyone, and I am so pleased by the number of people I communicate with by the end of the day, the people who realize: “Hey, it does no good to avoid thinking about this disease. God forbid the time comes when I need this information. I should learn more. I should be ready.”
It does no good to wait. Be aware. Be proactive. And it behooves you to get annual checkups with your doctor. What you may think is a symptom of Alzheimer’s could be something as simple as a vitamin deficiency. You won’t know until you go.
I watched as my grandmother never left my grandfather's side during his battle with Alzheimer’s. After losing him, it was all the more apparent that caregivers need time off to get rejuvenated and come back into their situations with a fresh mindset. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of someone else?
As an attorney, I stress the power of attorney, planning ahead and completing financial paperwork as soon as possible once someone receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. That ensures that he or she can be involved in the process, and it’s an opportunity for the person with the disease to have a say in where his or her assets go, and where he or she wants to be cared for.
My best advice is to do yourself the service of not putting anything on the backburner. We may not have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease yet, but educators and volunteers through the Alzheimer’s Association can provide the resources to help families be as prepared as they can be.
About Vonnetta: One of the most-requested community educators serving the Greater Atlanta area, Vonnetta also served on the 2017 and 2018 Atlanta Walk to End Alzheimer's planning committee as Logistics Chair. In her professional life, Vonnetta is an attorney with a global law firm.
Featured in the photo in this post are Vonnetta (front row, left), with her sister Gail Benjamin (center) volunteering at an Alzheimer's Association event.