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By the time I was a senior in high school, I had my mind set on pursuing a career in politics. Like most of my peers, I was applying to colleges.

Everything changed when my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

My dad had been suffering from neck pains due to a recent car accident. His doctor ordered some scans to be done and a week later, my mom and I accompanied my dad to the hospital, believing there to be nothing wrong.

Author Hillary Han and her father. (Courtesy of Hillary Han)
Author Hillary Han and her father. (Courtesy of Hillary Han)

“It’s probably just a muscle sprain or something,” my dad said.

The doctor proceeded to inform us that my dad’s brain had already shrunk by 35 percent, even though there was never any indication he had a memory-affecting illness. He told us my dad’s condition — Alzheimer’s — was progressing at a faster-than-normal rate.

Alzheimer’s. Dad. 35 percent.

I wasn’t sure I had heard the doctor correctly. I didn’t understand. How could he have been helping me with my math homework the day before if he was having memory issues?

News of my dad’s condition didn’t fully register with me until a few weeks later. I began to notice my dad was having trouble recalling things. It started with small things. He would ask me what day of the week it was, and I’d reply, not thinking it was out of the ordinary. Since my dad was much older than typical parents with kids my age, I simply thought his minor memory problems were due to age.

Never did I imagine that my dad was sick with a disease that would gradually strip him of everything that made him who he is and take from him what is most precious to him — the memories of his family.

For as long as I can remember, my dad was the primary caretaker of our family. Since my mom wasn’t fluent in English and I was busy with school, my dad was the one who took on tasks like managing our bills and filing our taxes.

Author Hillary Han and her father. (Courtesy of Hillary Han)
Author Hillary Han and her father. (Courtesy of Hillary Han)

Then, my dad’s condition worsened to the point where he could no longer take responsibilities like this on.

Suddenly, my peers were worried about their grades and which college to attend, and I was struggling to figure out how to do my family’s taxes, with college at the very back of my mind.

These stresses were vastly different than what I expected to face as an incoming college freshman. I decided to postpone attending a traditional four-year university and instead to enroll in a local community college so that I could stay home to spend time with my dad and help my mom care for him.

As my dad’s Alzheimer’s progressed, it took away the determined, outspoken person I knew. He is now easily agitated, can no longer participate in conversations and has difficulty navigating social situations. In just a year, my dad’s condition progressed so much that I realized my mom and I could no longer handle it alone.

Unsure of what to do, I turned to the Internet.

That’s when discovered the Alzheimer’s Association and dialed its 24-hour helpline. I often think back to the moment I picked up my phone to dial the helpline and how alone I felt. It was the call that helped me realize that I wasn’t alone — that there were people on the other end of the receiver, ready to help. The Alzheimer’s Association made an impact in my life when I most needed it.

In June, Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, I graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in philosophy. I have been working as intern on a congressional campaign. Over the past few years, I have had to make compromises. Juggling work, my classes and my involvement in student organizations, all while helping my family, doesn’t leave me with much time for fun (not to mention sleep).

I know that sooner or later, my chosen career will likely take me away from my family.

But for now, I’m happy to know that I can still spend time with my father.

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