By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
When high school sophomore and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Gabe Coleman participated in the Jacksonville Walk to End Alzheimer’s last year, he carried a yellow flower with him, a “Forget Me Not” that symbolized those who care for someone living with the disease.
“I also carry it as a symbol of the love I have for my grandmother. The ‘Forget Me Nots’ are just a really beautiful way to make fighting for a cure more personal,” said Coleman, adding that there are four different colors of flowers/meanings offered at the walks.
Coleman’s reason for walking is very personal. His Grandmother Pat, 82, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2017. That diagnosis has motivated Coleman to do more, not just for his grandmother, but for everyone battling the disease. Coleman, who attends Bolles High School, partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association and the Jacksonville Walk to End Alzheimer’s two years ago, raising with his team nearly $10,000 “and counting” for the cause.
Coleman, 16, remembers visiting his grandmother every summer when she lived in Tampa. Those memories are precious to him, especially waking up early, heading to his grandmother’s room and watching “Spongebob Squarepants” together. Coleman visits his grandmother now at Starling at Nocatee, an assisted living and memory care facility, where she was moved to be closer to family. While the visits are different today, Coleman said that he still finds ways to connect with his grandmother through nature and humor.
The end game for Coleman: Find a cure for Alzheimer’s. Eliminate the statistic in which 6.5 million Americans are living with the disease.
“That number will be zero,” said Coleman. “That is when I will be satisfied.”
Q: How did you first get involved in the Alzheimer’s Association?
A: My dad, who is a professional photographer, and I volunteered to be photographers at our first walk in 2019. We then created many videos about the cause, and the videos got a lot of exposure. It was amazing to see how it spreads by word of mouth and to see heartfelt reactions to videos of my grandmother. We then asked “How can we do more?” That’s when we began to reach out to more of our social circles (Coleman plays soccer at Bolles and at Florida Prime), and everyone responded. Our goal is to always get bigger and find more things to do. In November 2021, I was able to get the Acosta Bridge lit up purple for Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, which was a spectacular sight.
Q: What have you learned about your grandmother because of this disease?
A: I’ve learned a lot about my grandmother, and not just the stories of her childhood from Minnesota that she tells on her better days. I’ve learned a lot about her as a person because she’s battling a challenge that is about as unique as they come. She is just an amazing person, and she has lived an amazing life.
Q: What have you learned about yourself through this journey?
A: I’ve learned that each and every participant in the fight to find a cure makes a huge difference. I’ve only been actively supporting the Alzheimer’s Association for a few years, but the reach I’ve somehow managed to have has amazed me. And this goes back to my number one principle of Alzheimer’s Association support: spread the word.
Q: What do you want people to know about Alzheimer’s?
A: I think a lot of people just don’t know enough about Alzheimer’s in general, from how many people it affects to the way it creeps up slowly and its varying ways of hiding away one’s memories or personality. Sometimes it starts with the memories that are farthest back, and sometimes it ravages everything in the short-term instead. Sometimes it does both. And then sometimes, it does neither until one day, small physical impediments morph into complete memory loss. Like I said, it creeps up slowly, but once it takes hold, there is no cure. Not yet, anyway.
Q: How do you feel about the support you have received for this cause from all areas of your life?
A: The community support at the last walk meant everything to me. There were 800 walkers and 200 volunteers, gathered for an outdoor event on an especially gloomy day. The array of “Forget Me Nots” brightened up the day, though, as did the smiling faces of 1,000 people who had chosen to be there. The best feeling is that walks like the one at the University of North Florida happen all over the United States, and that our 1,000 is just one example of a huge community all walking towards the same goal.
[Author’s Note: If you are interested in participating in the Jacksonville Walk to End Alzheimer’s or getting involved in any way, please go to the Alzheimer’s Association’s (Central and North Florida Chapter) website at alz.org.]
Photo courtesy Sean Coleman