The Young Face of Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Editor’s Note: November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregiver Month. Honor a caregiver this November.

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By: Kelly Zwicker

Shantel Thilman is one of many to be inspired by her personal connection to Alzheimer’s disease and engage her community through her life passions. She is a reminder that individuals can inspire a community effort to help create a world without Alzheimer’s disease.

Shantel is a loving granddaughter to Jan Stevens, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. This particular family dynamic demonstrates the loving nature of family members that find alternative ways of caring for each other. Shantel, for instance, had been the primary caregiver for Jan. However, Shantel had the self-awareness to know as his symptoms progressed she could no longer be the best care partner to her grandfather.

The special relationship between Shantel and Jan has sparked a realization that Shantel cannot be everything her grandfather needs as a caregiver and continue to be the loving granddaughter she sees herself as. “I would want my grandpa to be an independent man” Shantel shared,  “because he has been his whole life and the fact is, with Alzheimer’s, you don’t stay independent.” When Shantel realized she was no longer the best caregiver for her grandpa they were able to decide together that a seeking a professional caregiver would make sure Jan had the best care possible and Shantel could continue to support him, in her own way.

Caregivers remain to be a specific and vital support system to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Shantel, having experienced being a young caregiver, understands the important contribution of the right caregiver to a patient. “That is why we hire people,” Shantel explains “This is what they want to do. This is where they thrive.”

Shantel’s experience inspired her to get involved with the Alzheimer’s Association, in a way that reflects her lifestyle and passions. Shantel reflects on where she feels most helpful and happy in the community: “going out and being a massage therapist, a barista, a server…where I get to be out there, that is a job that is in my strength.”

Shantel is using those strengths to aid the global initiative to find a cure through her own passions as a participant in The Longest Day. She plans to bike from Alaska to the Mexico border, raising money for the Alzheimer’s Association through donations along the way. Shantel is known in her family for having an adventurous spirit and Jan was not surprised to hear is granddaughter’s plans, “This is just all the things she does. This is a piece of her life” he joked, “follow her for 50 years she’ll still be doing this.”  

Participating in The Longest Day is a way for Shantel to contribute to the cause in honor of her grandfather, in her own way. Without the limitations of a caregiver role, Shantel can be herself and have the relationship with Jan that she has always cherished, filled with humor and life. Shantel’s journey will begin on on June 21, the longest day of the year. Thousands of people across the nation will join her on this day to honor caregivers and raise funds and awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association with their own passions and hobbies.  Caregiving is not the only way to be involved with the care of loved ones with this disease. Simply being there for someone and making them feel supported and loved is equally vital.

The transition from caregiver to advocate for this disease has been a great one for Shantel, and she is inspired to continue to prepare for her bike ride and raise funds throughout the year for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day event.

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