Meet Our Caregiver Champions

Caregiver Champions Contest Recognizes and Honors Family Caregivers

Great caregivers know that taking care of themselves gives them the energy and patience needed to be the very best at helping their loved one. They exercise or meditate, they draw on resources like support groups and caregiving classes. They use adult day programs as a way of stimulating their loved one and providing themselves with a break. They reach out to friends and their spiritual centers for help.

With November designated as Family Caregiver Month – and recognizing that unpaid caregivers make it possible for our elders to age with grace and dignity — the Area Agency on Aging 1-B decided to honor those who do it best. We put out a call for family caregivers from each of the six counties we serve who practice self-care while tending to the needs of a loved one. We pored over 75-plus nominations to our Caregiver Contest, selecting four women and two men whom we’ll honor on Saturday, November 16.

“We had the contest because we feel strongly that it’s important to recognize and appreciate family caregivers,” said AAA 1-B president and CEO Michael Karson. “Family caregivers give so much of themselves. They are doing everything from running errands to feeding and dressing their loved one to making sure a loved one with dementia stays safe. It can be a 24/7 commitment that’s both physically and emotionally taxing. This was our chance to stop and say thank you—not only to our winners—but to everyone out there who is caring for an aging or ill loved one—whether that’s a parent, spouse, sibling or friend.”

 Our Winners

Livingston County:
Maureen Borener-Walker

Livingston County Caregiver Champion, Maureen Borener-WalkerMaureen has been a caregiver for her parents for nearly 30 years. Until her father Clarence’s passing in 2008, she commuted to Ypsilanti Township for all his medical appointments – he had Parkinson’s, dementia and prostate cancer – and made sure he adhered to his dietary and medication regimens. She exhaustively researched home health and hospice services, ensuring that he was able to stay in his home until his death. Then she took over the primary care of her mother Rita, now 94, who lives in an independent living residence despite having dementia and kidney disease. Maureen hired in-home health aides for her mom and serves as her advocate and care coordinator. She visits every day and takes her mom grocery shopping twice a week, out to lunch and for walks. She tapped into veteran services – Maureen’s father was a WWII vet – to defray the cost of care.

To help her on her caregiving journey, Maureen took the Creating Confident Caregivers training program, which was facilitated by the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, and has participated in support groups for people caring for people with dementia and Parkinson’s.

Self-care: Maureen takes daily walks and works out twice a week. She’ll treat herself to lunch and trips to the salon. She likes crossword puzzles and day trips with her husband Donald to the Soaring Eagle casino, Bavarian Inn, and other places to play National Trivia Network games. She goes to the Stratford Festival once a year.

Maureen worked at Washtenaw County Juvenile Court for 30 years.

Quote: “You have to be patient and as caring as you can be. Also, you need to make time for yourself.”

Macomb County:
Kimberly Mercier

Macomb County Caregiver Champion, Kimberly MercierKimberly cared for her father-in-law for two years, using private duty care and a life alert system so that he could stay in his home. After his death, she took over the sole care of her father Paul, who moved in with her and her family after he was discharged from the hospital. She makes meals and shops, helps with showering, schedules medical appointments and coordinates his care. When her mother Ann Marie had a health crisis, Kimberly became her caregiver, too, although her mom does not live with her. Kimberly has a younger son who has medical needs, as well. She uses home care services and family support to help her.

Kimberly works part-time as an oncology social worker at Webber Cancer Center at Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital, Warren Campus.

Self-care: Kimberly volunteers as an advisory board member and medical director of Maggie’s Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, a national nonprofit organization that provides support services and donates wigs to children ages 3 to 18 who have experienced hair loss because of cancer treatment, alopecia, trichotillomania, burns and other disorders.  Relaxing means getting away for a few hours to meet her BFF in Lansing to watch the Spartans play basketball. “It’s amazing how much that improves my mental health,” she says.

Quote: “I don’t think anyone ever yearns to do the difficult task of caregiving for an aging adult. But I do know that everyone deserves to be loved, respected and treated with dignity. That is the true meaning of caregiving to me.”

Monroe County:
Juanita Gunn

After her retirement as an ICU nurse, Juanita used her nursing skills as a volunteer at blood drives, church camps and school field trips. She has been the dispenser of medical advice for her children and others and provided day care for her grandchildren. Juanita nursed her father during his ordeal with pancreatic cancer, attending all his doctor appointments and medical procedures. She administered IV medication, cared for his drains, attended to his bedsores and bathroom needs. She slept at his bedside while he was in hospice care.  and then took over care of her mother, who is 99, and her mother-in-law, who is 96. Today Juanita runs errands, manages their medications, doctor’s appointments and in-home care.

Self-care: Juanita cooks and bakes for others and loves to feed her grandchildren. For 20 years, she has hosted a weekly group of women – the “basket ladies” – who get together to weave baskets and talk. She meets with 4-H kids once a week to help with fair projects. Through her church she provides food for the community and meals at Christmas.

Quote: “I could not have done it alone. I was blessed to have a lot of help from so many others.”

Oakland County:
Kanu Mehta

Kanu Mehta, Oakland County Caregiver ChampionKanu is a retired Chrysler executive who cares for his wife, Sumi, full time. Sumi Mehta is 65 and once worked as a travel agent. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, when she was 59.

Kanu and Sumi have been married for more than four decades. They have two grown children who live in Los Angeles. After Sumi’s diagnosis, Kanu learned as much as he could about Alzheimer’s. It helped him to reach a level of acceptance of his beloved wife’s condition. As an engineer by training, he created solutions around the house to make sure Sumi is safe. He also helps Sumi stay fit by walking with her four miles each day. Kanu calls himself Sumi’s “care partner.”

Self-care: Kanu participates in two support groups for Alzheimer’s caregivers. He also took Powerful Tools for Caregivers, an Area Agency on Aging 1-B course that empowers caregivers with coping strategies and participates in another class for caregivers at Wayne State. He hired a part-time caregiver who helps Sumi on weekday mornings with feeding, toileting, showering and dressing. Kanu takes art classes, too, and finds that writing a blog that details his life with Sumi, “My Journey with Sumi,” is therapeutic.

QUOTE: “As Sumi is changing, it becomes incumbent upon me to change my perspective, as well. I began to differentiate that when Sumi is extremely difficult, it is not her but the disease. When she is smiling, it is her true self and not the disease … Changes in Sumi have precipitated changes in me. Sumi gives purpose to my life.”

St. Clair County:
Christopher Knowlton

Christopher and Shelly Knowlton, St. Clair County Caregiver ChampionChristopher is the youngest of his siblings. Three years ago, his family offered to take his mother into their home.  She has dementia. He helps her get dressed and performs other daily caregiving tasks and manages her medical care (he recently obtained hearing aids for her). His brother and sisters come by to visit and take her out for hours at a time. Christopher uses a local adult day program, which provides socialization for his mother, and he includes her in church, school and sporting events.

Christopher is a full-time financial advisor. He has eight children ranging from age 6 to 24 with wife Shelly. Six of them live at home.

Self-care: Christopher and his family are active in their local church, and they accept support from their church family. When they want to take a vacation, he hires a friend to move in to care for his mom, who is 89. His children are also involved in caring for their grandmother.

Quote: “I couldn’t do much of anything in life without the support and love of my wife, Shelly.  When Mom came to live with us, we determined that we would continue on as normal whenever possible.  This means we arrange for other family members to care for Mom, or we hire helpers, regularly as needed.”

 Washtenaw County:
Dianne Kobylarz Singer

Dianne Kobylarz Singer, Washtenaw County Caregiver ChampionIn 2004, Dianne and her husband built an addition on their home, anticipating that her parents would live with them in their later years. Her father has dementia and prostate cancer, and since 2008, both he and Dianne’s mother, who lost the use of her right arm through a stroke (and also has dementia), have been living with the Singers.  They are 88 and 90.

The VA provides 16 hours of caregiving – Dianne’s father is a Korean War vet – and the Area Agency on Aging 1-B provides 8 hours of care for each parent each week. That covers half of Dianne’s workday.  Her five brothers also help with caregiving during the week and a few weekends a month. When Dianne and her husband Ray need a break, they head for their family cottage up north and the brothers who live in the area help out. Family sing-alongs and games like wheelchair kickball and ABC blocks are a daily part of caregiving.

Dianne is a full-time project manager at University of Michigan‘s Susana B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center. Her area of research is healthy aging.

Self-care: The Singers attend church regularly and help counsel engaged couples in preparing for marriage. They also do yoga and get an occasional massage. Dianne has dinner once a month with the women she met when she was a Girl Scout troop leader and attends monthly meetings with the Knights of Columbus Ladies Auxiliary. She volunteers with another local charity with fundraising activities.

Dianne took a caregiving class through University of Michigan and is part of a caregiver research study, also through UM.

Quote: “Many people have often said, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it.’ We do it out of love and appreciation of life, even though at times it tries your patience and can be exhausting.” The Singers live by a late aunt’s ‘LATER’ philosophy: Love, Always be Thoughtful, Enjoy life and Relax.”