12-year-old Jonathan Sze of Hobart cherishes his memories of playing basketball with the man he's named after. At 67-years-old, Alzheimer's Disease began robbing John Laritson of his life.
"The worst part is in the beginning when the person themselves knows they're losing their memory. That's when it was the saddest when dad would look at me with tears in his eyes saying, 'You're losing me,'" explains John's daughter, Tammy.
The man who made them laugh with his jokes, and who enjoyed swimming with his grandchildren, was slowly slipping away.
"He used to do these awesome flips off the diving board, and then you go to now he's scared of the water. He's worried about us. It's really hard," explains his granddaughter, Sophia.
The family cared for him for eight years to honor his dying wish of staying at home.
Tammy says, "We became his memory and always made him feel safe."
"It definitely was very hard, but in a way, I think he helped me mature and become a better person," Jonathan says.
During his grandfather's battle with the disease, Jonathan, who was only in second grade at the time, asked for money instead of birthday gifts, so he could donate to the Alzheimer's Association
's efforts to find a cure.
"He said, 'I'm so happy that you're doing this for me and other people, and that you'll be helping others. I think you're growing up to be such a good man.'"
It's a message Jonathan holds close to his heart. His grandpa passed away in 2014, but he still requests donations instead of presents on his birthday to fund research.
Last weekend, Jonathan was chosen to share his difficult journey with more than 1,000 people at the Walk to End Alzheimer's
at Lambeau Field. The event raised over $100,000 dollars for the Alzheimer's Association to continue scientific work to find new treatments, prevention, and possibly a cure, as well as fund support groups for caregivers and online education programs. The event was emotional for the entire Sze family.
"On that day, I think we all feel the same feeling, that we aren't alone helping fight for your cure," Jonathan explains.
As the Sze family reminisces about happier times, while looking at old pictures of John collecting seashells on a Florida beach, they continue to fight Alzheimer's in honor of him, so other families can have more time to make precious memories. Right now, John's wife, Betty, is also fighting the disease. After watching two parents deteriorate, and having experienced the challenges of navigating the system to get the best care, Tammy has created her own business, A to Sze
, to guide others through the process.
If you'd like to support the fight against the disease, there are two more Walk to End Alzheimer's events this Saturday, September 24th at Fox Cities Stadium
in Grand Chute and at the Manitowoc-Two Rivers YMCA
. Both events begin at 9:00am.
The Alzheimer's Association estimates 5 million Americans are living with the disease. They say it's the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S.