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Volunteer & Alzheimer’s Caregiver Kristin Schmitt: “The Hardest Decision I Had to Make Was Also the Easiest”

Volunteer & Alzheimer’s Caregiver Kristin Schmitt: “The Hardest Decision I Had to Make Was Also the Easiest”
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February 19, 2021
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About four years ago, my family helped to move my grandparents into a condo within 10 minutes of all of us. This would turn out to be crucial — a blessing — as we would be facing my grandma’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis together in the future.

After the move, Grams, one of the most influential people in my life, started showing signs that something was wrong. She was doing things like repeating her stories over and over again, and forgetting recent events.

Sometimes we are naive prior to a diagnosis; we may take certain things in life for granted. But my grandmother’s diagnosis put me on a track where I would have the least regrets in my life. 

Simply put, the journey of dealing with Alzheimer’s has catapulted me into womanhood. Being able to step into my grandma's shoes and implement the things she taught me growing up is a blessing — in fact, it is an honor.

How I Became a Caregiver

I have a master’s degree in social work and was working as an Advanced Practice Social Worker (APSW). In 2015, after I had my first son, Carter, I decided to leave the security of my job to finally follow my dreams of becoming a doctor. 

I had no science background, so my husband, Curtis, and I sat down and mapped out a plan. I took all my prerequisites over the course of a couple of years, and then had my second son, Jackson.

I realized the crazy new world I was stepping into. But it was amazing — I felt like I had finally found my path!

While the world was spinning around me — I was studying for the MCAT and getting my letters of recommendation together, and Curtis and I started making connections at out-of-state schools, browsing potential new homes — my grandmother’s official diagnosis came. Alzheimer’s. The “A” word that halted everything.

Staying in Wisconsin for Grams and putting my medical school dream on hold was my choice, and it was both the easiest and hardest decision I’ve made in my life.

I had spent years committing to this new path my life had been taking. I was about to change careers, which was daunting. As a dedicated mom, and as a woman of color, I had all of these challenges in my way. It took so much courage just to make those things happen.

But I couldn’t leave my grandma. Our connection is so strong, so that part was easy. 

Today, we do our nails together. We bake. We craft — my grandmother is an amazing crafter! And gardening together remains one of my strongest memories from childhood. I can still feel the sun beating down on us while we gardened in our sun hats, kneeling on squishy little garden mats. She tells me how deep to dig the hole, and how much dirt to cover it up with: “Don’t pat too hard, Kristin!”

I learned so much alongside her throughout my life, my mom and I having lived with my grandparents until my freshman year of high school. We were beyond close… we still are.

A New Path, Inspired by Grams

In Fall of 2019, I was out of the workforce for nearly four years when I realized I could either struggle to find a job that takes me away from my grandma, or do something else. As a mom with two young boys, I had to bring home a paycheck to contribute — but I also needed to make my own hours.

And I needed to be fulfilled, needed a sense of purpose. Over five months of brainstorming — and a lot of tears — I stumbled across soap making. I was already making bath bombs, and while I was in this creative bath and body realm, I got sucked in. I was good at it. I looked at my husband, and I wondered. Could I do this? Could this be my new path?

I started researching small business ownership and practiced making soap. But a question lingered in the back of my mind: “How can I give back in a way that is bigger than myself?”

My grandma gave me my creativity, and my mom gave me my strong work ethic. I’m now the proud owner of Inik, a bath and body soap company. Inik is a word that means ‘unique’ in my Haitian Creole heritage.

Today, I use science in my everyday life: the science of saponification, the chemical reaction in which the building blocks of fats and oils react with lye to form soap. I’m doing all of this from home, from scratch, on my own schedule, allowing me the time with Grams that I need. This also allows me to use my small business to support causes I care about.

Finding Community

Once you make soap, it is a forward-facing reaction; that reaction can never go backwards. Like the process of soap making, I am forward-facing, too. I have found kinship in the Milwaukee area, through the arts collectives that support other creatives. And I have found community through people facing Alzheimer’s and other dementia.

After starting my business in February of 2019, I learned about Alzheimer’s Association fundraising events, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s and The Longest Day. The Longest Day is a fundraising event where you can choose any activity you want to honor someone affected by Alzheimer’s on June 20, the summer solstice. I chose arts and crafts, the perfect fit for celebrating my Grams in an important way with an activity that brings her so much joy — and her talent in crafting can’t be matched!

As we find our way through 2021, I want to continue to be involved in these events that honor the people we love facing Alzheimer’s. I participated in a socially-distanced Walk to End Alzheimer’s event in my area in 2020, and I serve on volunteer committees, a way for me to speak from the heart about my experiences. As a small business owner, I have a unique opportunity to use social media to reach people who may not have been reached before, to educate, to inform, to spread awareness of the Alzheimer’s cause, programs and support.

As a caregiving team, my husband, mom and grandpa operate like the Fantastic Four. As part of this small but mighty team, I want our community to know that there is always someone else fighting alongside you. You are not alone. This disease can be very isolating, but I am doing everything I can to spread awareness, rounding up everyone in my circle to get involved so that we see a cure for Alzheimer’s in my lifetime. 

Rainbow Days

As I continue on my path as a caregiver and business owner, there are good days and bad days. A few weeks ago, I had a really good day. I had just made a rainbow soap, which I showed to Grams. She said: “Kristin, I’m so proud of you. I am glad one of my granddaughters followed in my footsteps.” My tears began to fall: tears of joy.

This journey has taught me so much about love and loss, things we all will inevitably experience. It has made me more present in my life. This amazing woman, my grandmother, instilled so much trust and creativity in me, and I have to use that to benefit those around me — and those I will never meet in my lifetime. When Grams has a bad day, when she is mistrustful or confused or down, there is always one of those rainbow days on the horizon. It helps me keep going.

Being a caregiver is no easy task. It takes love, but it also takes a heck of a lot of patience, something I think a lot of people don't talk about. Throughout the pandemic, I have gained more patience, passion, community and love. I have gained new courage, which gives me hope. Just because things look different around us right now doesn't mean we can’t still love, and keep moving forward.

I’m still finding ways to put my passion to work through volunteering my time and energy as a source of support in my community and communities of color. Just like I was able to change my path to be there for my grandma, I want others to know that we are here for you, too. Reach out. If you need to talk or need a resource, you are probably a stone’s throw away from someone who can help. We can get through anything if we face it together.

Today, my path looks different, but I’ve realized that it is the path I needed to be on. The possibilities are still endless, and I am still close to the most amazing person I know. My grandma is vibrant, warm and feisty to this day. She is caring, creative, kind and smart. She is strong, and she inspires me every day.

I love you so much, Grams. I will never stop fighting for you. 

About: Kristin is a lover of science, small business owner, caregiver for her beloved Grams, Alzheimer’s Association volunteer and proud mother of two boys. She lives with her husband Curtis and family in Franklin, Wisconsin. 

Related articles:
The Longest Day

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