Individual awards are not always about the individual

The last two days have been an absolute whirlwind. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to present research at the UCLA Aging Conference and interview the Deputy Director of the National Institutes on Aging. Hours later, I was on a red-eye to Nashville to present our innovative social enterprise student caregiver model in front of hundreds of senior living executives and share strategies for millennial recruitment. The same day, at the 2017 Argentum Senior Living Conference, I was honored as the youngest recipient of the Under 40 Senior Living Leader Award. 

There are three key reasons I believe this award materialized... 

1. Mentors. Every time I have the opportunity to talk with someone who is more experience than me in entrepreneurship, medicine, or the field of aging, I am blessed to walk away from the conversation with more knowledge than I did going into it. Mentors who I've had recurring talks with are the most powerful because I am motivated to implement their advice quickly enough to ensure I have results by the time of our next discussion. Thank you to all my mentors who have been rigorous in their feedback and sincere in their intentions.

2. The cause. Alzheimer's sucks. Caregiving sucks more. Of the thousands of people I've interacted with throughout my life, none have so tremendously shifted my life perspective as those who spend their days caring for their husband / wife / mother / father / grandmother / grandfather and helping them make it through each day. Their ability to accept each day as a new challenge, power through the hostilities with a foundation of love render a desire within me to find ways to alleviate their burden.  I wake up every day knowing my purpose. This keeps me going. Always.

3. My team. We all do this for no pay. On our operating staff are students who are balancing working a job, rigorous classes, and still finding time to give back by creating an organization that is larger than the sum of its parts. This past weekend, I received an email from a former team member who had left the organization months ago, and she sent me a list of suggestions to improve our research webpage. Many of our team members are scattered across the nation and do incredible work outreaching to their local communities in spreading our message. Nothing great happens without a great team, and I am forever grateful for their collective belief in the mission and relentless work in developing our organization.

From my co-founder who always pushed me to think bigger and lead with a purpose to our graphic designer who puts together our flyers and pitch deck to the float volunteer who helped setup for just-that-one event - you have all played a role, and this award is for all of you as much as it is for me. The momentum is building, and I hope our efforts will materialize in building a sustainable youth-led nonprofit.

 

I started a national Alzheimer’s nonprofit at 20 years old. Trust me, Alzheimer's is not an "old person's" disease.

As the debate about the new federal budget surfaces in every corner of America, it’s imperative that students begin to discuss the singular disease that no bill or budget will be able to adequately address in the next several years - Alzheimer’s. Yeah - that disease that “only old people” get is about a lot more than grandma forgetting where the remote is.

 

Two years ago, I had the privilege of being flown out to the Alzheimer’s Association Advocacy Forum where over 1,100 community leaders, doctors, and researchers from across the country gathered to lobby Members of Congress for increased funds for Alzheimer’s research. Impatient to idea-source retribution plans for my recently diagnosed grandmother, I actively sought to find a like-minded community that I couldn’t find at my college. After seeing a breakout session titled “youth forum,” I was sure I was about to meet my future best friends. To my dismay, there were only about 50 attendees at this forum, and most were in their early 30s. This was not the “youth” I was hoping to find.

 

The forum as a whole, however, was far from a disappointment. As I listened to a former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, and the current director of the National Institute on Aging, Dr. Richard J. Hodes give their keynotes, I began to understand that for millions of families, Alzheimer’s double-downed on its emotional impact by robbing family caregivers of their jobs and savings. Facts like “only 100 dollars is spent by the US government toward Alzheimer’s research for every 26,000 spent for its care” and “compared to those over 65 without Alzheimer’s, those with Alzheimer’s cost 23 times more to cover through Medicaid” stuck with me. While I hadn’t found my community, I walked away with a transformative bottom-line: the Alzheimer’s epidemic is an economic collapse waiting to happen.

 

Upon my return to UCLA, I co-founded a nonprofit and began to build this community by sharing my realization with my peers. Bruins are pretty receptive. Under the guidance of former U.S. Secretary on Aging, Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, and world renowned geriatric psychiatrist, Dr. Gary Small, our founding chapter grew to over 75 active members within its first year. As our programs have matured, we’ve been able to raise $10,000 for research scholarships, spread our message to over 20 colleges and high schools, and provide over 2,000 hours of caregiver respite.

 

Our message has been quick to spread because students have begun to ponder the realities of this disease:

 

  • What will happen to our economy when millions more wives, daughters, husbands, and sons have to stop working to provide care for their loved one?

  • How will senior services accommodate the millions of baby boomers who are soon to retire?

  • How long will our government be able to provide health insurance to our generation?

  • Will social security exist by the time my generation needs it?

  • Who will hold elected officials accountable for increased Alzheimer’s research funding when they are proposing a 20% cut to the NIH (Especially if the patients and their already-stressed caregivers cannot do it themselves)?

 

With political headlines plaguing our news headlines and twitter feeds, these questions do not get the limelight they deserve. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know the collective student voice can drastically change the trajectory of our fight against this disease. If you are a young caregiver - be fearless and share your story. If your grandparent was affected - make sure your parents aren’t. If you think healthcare coverage is important - take a stand. Whether it’s by starting a chapter of our nonprofit, volunteering your free time at a memory care facility, or simply starting conversations by asking the questions above, I encourage every student to seek innovative ways to be a champion for this cause. Our peers, the millions currently affected, and millions who will need you. Our collective future depends on it.

 

References:

http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/2017-facts-and-figures.pdf