Meet the 2017 SeniorHomes.com Scholarship Winners!

 The SeniorHomes.com Student Caregiver Scholarship award awards two university students in the U.S. a $1,000 grant for tuition and/or books, based on each applicant’s essay or video story submission. After reviewing numerous applications from student caregivers throughout the nation, our judges deemed the following two students most worthy of this year’s prize.

WINNER #1

 

[caption id="attachment_35659" align="aligncenter" width="435"]AndreaScholar Andrea pictured with her father[/caption]

 

ANDREA VUONO is a student at Northeastern University studying speech-language pathology. She is a caregiver for her father. This is her caregiving story, submitted with her scholarship application.

 

Question 1: Who is the individual you are caring for, and when did you begin caring for them?

Being a caregiver is a unique role that simultaneously challenges an individual and provides the opportunity for immense growth in character and virtue. As a caregiver, one must often sacrifice one’s desires and needs for those of the individual they are caring for. This has been revealed to me and has had a profound impact on my life ever since my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease when I was only 12.

The diagnosis launched my family on a complex journey as we learned to adapt to our new roles. My position as caregiver thus began as a gradual transference of responsibilities as the disease slowly caused my father’s capabilities to diminish. Over the past eight years, I have learned to handle the transition of caring for my father while still maintaining a loving father-daughter relationship. This has proved to be tricky at times, as any teenager’s relationship with her father can be, but has resulted in a strong bond between us.

My role as a caregiver encompasses physical and emotional support for both my father and mother. I assist around the house, such as by making dinner, helping with laundry or taking my dad for a walk so he can get some fresh air. When I am away at school, this also involves calling him nightly and making weekend trips home to visit. Over the years, I have taken on many responsibilities and learned to compassionately complete tasks that would be foreign to most teenagers, such as tying the shoes of the man who taught me how to tie mine.

Caregiving, however, also goes beyond providing for my father’s physical needs. I use innovation and creativity to provide emotional support. For instance, I recently set up my old iPod with songs from some of his favorite artists. While this was important in order to keep him engaged and provide entertainment, I realized my job as a caregiver goes beyond just providing music, but also entails providing someone to be there with him when he wants to dance to the music. It has been important to not only think of ways to provide comfort, but also to ensure that my father is still able to make connections and maintain relationships.

Being a caregiver also means supporting my mother emotionally. By being available as someone she can talk to and rely on, I can help my mom make the best decisions for my father’s care. I also need to ensure that she maintains her own well-being by encouraging her to schedule doctor’s appointments for herself and by staying home with my dad on occasion so she can be re-energized by spending some time out with friends.

Caring for my father has been a team effort in which my family has learned to collaborate and care for both him and each other. The past eight years have been both challenging and greatly rewarding as I learn to be a more selfless, compassionate caregiver for my father.

 

Question 2: How has your role as a caregiver influenced the decision for your major/career path?

With my father’s diagnosis coming at a time in my life when most teenagers are being encouraged to discover their passions and plan their futures, caring for him throughout high school and college has had a profound impact on my decision to study Speech-Language Pathology. As I witnessed a steady decline in his communication skills, I began to realize the profound importance of being able to communicate. Communication is necessary to not only in allow an individual to express his needs, but also being able to express one’s personality and form relationships with others.

As I watched my father struggle to participate in dinner conversations, I wanted to learn techniques and strategies that would help my father. This desire has caused me to empathize with all people suffering from communication disorders, whether they stem from  an  Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a brain injury such as a stroke or even a student struggling with a stutter. I began to research different occupations that involved therapeutic rehabilitation and discovered the field of speech therapy.

As a speech pathology major, my classes have taught me the importance of verbal and nonverbal communication. I have acquired many skills to employ creative options to use when speech skills decline, such as giving my dad pictures of common items and activities to help him start a conversation or show us if he needs something.

While my classes have significantly increased my abilities as a caregiver, I am eager to develop strategies to teach other caregivers how to connect with their loved ones once I am a licensed clinician. By providing speech therapy to children with speech impediments or adults who’ve suffered strokes, I will improve their quality of life by allowing them to interact with others and decrease their frustration in being unable to participate in conversations. Reducing the pressure and stress of communicating effectively will allow others to refocus their efforts on activities or ideas they are passionate about.

This desire to help others communicate directly correlates with my experiences as a caregiver for my father. He has taught me the important connection between communication and relationships. The strategies I learned have allowed his personality to shine even though he has recently been diagnosed with both expressive and receptive aphasia, a communication disorder caused by damage to the areas of the brain that control language.

The desire to help my father communicate directly influenced my decision to study speech-language pathology, a career path that I hope allows me to impact the lives of many other individuals with communication disorders and their caregivers.

 

Question 3: How would this scholarship be helpful to you in your current student- caregiving role?

While being a student comes with its own financial responsibilities in the form of tuition, housing and books, being a caregiver has added a unique obligation for my family to ensure significant funds are maintained for my father’s care. The Senior Homes Scholarship would significantly ease the burden of financial matters and allow me to focus more both on caregiving while at home and on my studies while in classes.

With a disease like Alzheimer’s, the timeline is unpredictable and its length is uncertain. For instance, the progression of the disease recently led to an extended hospitalization as doctors introduced and adjusted new medications to manage my father’s symptoms. The scholarship will relieve the burden of worrying about our financial resources and allow us to obtain the necessary medications and treatments to help slow the progression of the disease. It  will also allow us to redirect the savings on tuition toward a time when my dad may need more intensive care, such as during the end stages of the disease when most people need nursing home care.

Furthermore, saving on tuition will allow me the resources to pay for a train ride home more often during the school year and will also allow me to spend my breaks at home with my dad rather than working. This provides the opportunity to be a better caregiver for my father and cherish the time we have together, especially since most of my breaks will occur around the holidays.

Receiving this scholarship will be an immense honor that not only provides resources for me to continue my education, but also will allow me to support and proudly represent a cause that has encompassed much of my life. My role as a caregiver has inspired me to major in speech-language pathology. This field requires a master’s degree that will mean two supplemental years of schooling beyond my bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. The scholarship will allow me to save money for this next chapter in my life as I continue to provide care and support for my family.

I want to spread the valuable lessons I have learned while being a caregiver by sharing my story in the classroom and the workforce as a speech-language pathologist. Being a caregiver has had a profound influence on my character and moral values and made me more aware of the struggles of others. I would be honored to represent caregivers as a scholarship recipient and inspire others to become compassionate, empathetic caregivers.

 

WINNER #2

[caption id="attachment_35660" align="aligncenter" width="435"]MonicaScholar Monica pictured with her father[/caption]

 

MONICA SCHNAPP is a student at the University of San Diego studying higher education leadership. She is a caregiver for her father. This is her caregiving story submitted with her scholarship application.

 

Question 1: Who is the individual you are caring for, and when did you begin caring for them?

On May 23, 2016, my life got turned completely upside down. My father underwent a 10.5 hour-long open heart surgery. His recovery was planned for a week in the hospital, and about a week at home. I had come home from graduate school to be with him during his recovery and to help out at home while he recovered.

Unfortunately, his recovery did not goat all as expected. My father spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit after surgery, then was taken to the Telemetry floor and the day before he was meant to be discharged, he was brought by via Rapid Response team back to the ICU because of fluid accumulating in his lungs. In total, he spent 12 weeks  (three months) recovering in the hospital and another two weeks in a rehabilitation center before he could be released into my care.

During those 12 weeks my father’s strength, nutrition levels and functional abilities were all significantly affected. Prior to the surgery, my father had been living alone (my mother passed away in 2011) and was completely self-sufficient. But after being released from rehab he was unsteady on his feet and required the assistance of a wheelchair and then a walker to get around. He needed help bathing, dressing, and could not cook or drive.

We made the decision that I would sell his home in Newport Beach, where he had lived for 35 years and where I had grown up, and that he would move to San Diego with me where I am attending graduate school. That helped a bit with finances, but as a full-time graduate student, I am only able to work part-time.

I currently hold two part-time jobs which has helped somewhat, but the medical bills, medications and both of our daily living needs are definitely more than my paychecks were meant to provide for. I know that once I graduate and am able to work in a salaried job, I will be able to support my father much more comfortably.

 

Question 2: How has your role as a caregiver influenced the decision for your major/career path?

My father’s surgery took place in the summer between my first and second year of graduate school. Even though I had already started my program and am still following the same path, the lessons I learned at his bedside are transferable to my coursework and career path in the future. I want to work in student affairs at a university, which means supporting and advocating for the student experience.

I spent all of last summer as a patient advocate for my father, so much so that when nurses and doctors found out I was in school they assumed it was for medicine. I have learned that listening is the best skill to have as an advocate for students and for patients. By being attentive to what the doctors and nurses were saying each day, I was able to recognize that they were not all communicating with each other (my father had a care team of about 25 medical staff at any given time from numerous departments).

For example, I was able to notice that his diet was being restricted due to concerns that a doctor expressed the week prior, but was no longer concerned about and hadn’t spoken with the dietician about making changes. By speaking up and paying attention, I was able to recommend that change, which helped my dad get off of tube feeds and on the road to discharge.

I also noticed a spot on my father’s incision site, which the nurses had just dismissed as a scab. When I asked a member of his surgical team about it, she looked at it and recognized that it was a sign that the wound was “de-hissing” . The medical team had to open the site and use wound therapy to help it heal. They mentioned that usually those types of problems are not noticed until they get infected and need surgical attention.

I am able to reflect back on these experiences as an advocate for my father’s care and apply it to my work with students. When my students want to talk with me about concerns or problems, I make sure I am not only listening to their words, but also observing their behavior and their reactions to what is happening around them. I am able to pick up on cues which allow me to better advise the students and refer them to the right resource, if needed.

 

Question 3: How would this scholarship be helpful to you in your current student- caregiving role?

As a master’s student in a higher education leadership program, a requirement of my program is to experience the higher education systems abroad. I had planned to have my abroad experience last summer, but due to my father’s surgery and long recovery, I was not able to. The only credits I have left which are hindering me from graduating are now the ones for studies abroad, which I am now hoping to complete this summer.

I have worked out other caregiving for my father if I am able to travel for my course, but because of the significant financial burden we have experienced this past year, I am not able to afford my course tuition. If I do not complete the abroad experience, I won’t be able to graduate and all of the hard work I’ve put into balancing caring for my father while being a full time graduate student and working two part- time jobs will have been for nothing.

This scholarship would mean so much to my father and I because I know my father feels he has caused a burden to me this year, even though I am just happy I’ve been able to take care of him. I am proud of both of us for making this horrible experience into something that has brought us closer and has cemented our father-daughter bond. I am happy that I was able to learn more about hospital systems and cardiac care and I now am much more informed as a patient and patient advocate for my father.

 

These caregiving stories have been lightly edited for clarity and length.