Pat Belongia-Shuler knows firsthand about the trials that caregivers experience. “No one can imagine the amount of stress that is involved unless you’ve walked in those shoes,” said Pat. Those shoes are a perfect fit for Pat. She walked in them for 21 years as a caregiver herself.
Pat’s journey began in 1988, when her 59 year-old husband Ken first exhibited signs of dementia. Two years later, Ken took an early retirement. The couple relished the thought of spending six months of the year at their Door County vacation home. Things went well at first, but life changed dramatically a decade later when the couple went for a scenic drive. “Ken pulled over to the side of the road and said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going,’ said Pat. “After that, he was never out of my sight.”
While the couple continued to travel for the next few years, enjoying a magnificent land tour of Alaska in addition to the peace and serenity of Door County, things came to an eventual skid in 2003. In Pat’s words, Ken got “remarkably worse” and she was advised to sell the Door County property so that she and Ken could live at their Kenosha residence where he would be closer to specialized medical care.
Ken now required constant assistance. Pat looked to the Alzheimer’s Association for education, support and advice. In 2006, Ken exhibited challenging behaviors that Pat could no longer handle alone. He ended up in two mental facilities before finally landing an appropriate placement in a secure nursing home. Pat rarely left Ken’s side, arriving at the nursing home by 6:00am, and leaving weary and exhausted at 10:00pm. “I always said that God was in control and I was quality engineering,” said Pat.
Ken finally succumbed to his illness in early 2009, 21 years after first exhibiting signs of dementia. Instead of running far away from this horrible disease, Pat became an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer. For the last 2 ½ years, Pat has served as a trained volunteer support group facilitator assisting caregivers in Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin, and Winthrop Harbor and Zion, Illinois. She also helps out in the Alzheimer’s Association Regional office, in addition to volunteering at events like caregiver conferences and the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
More than anything, this 81 year-old dynamo, who just remarried last September, wants every caregiver to know “there is life beyond”!