Until Nov. 19, the student-led Advocates Against Alzheimer's group is working to fundraise $10,000 for non-profit Leeza's Care Connection, a wellness center that provides information and support to caregivers of dementia patients.
"Leeza's Care Connection is our biggest affiliation and our biggest partner, so we try to work with them as best as we can and as often as we can," said Danny Schreiber, a third-year pharmacy student who serves as the organization's service and advocacy chair.
Through fundraisers, Advocates Against Alzheimer's aims to help ease the burden on caregivers and improve the lives of not only people with dementia but also the people tasked with taking care of them.
Lily Averkamp, the president of Advocates Against Alzheimer's, said the group's members are united by shared experiences with neurodegenerative diseases, in their own lives and in the lives of their loved ones.
"Advocates Against Alzheimer's is a group of students who come together, all of which have been somehow affected by Alzheimer's in their life," said Averkamp, a second-year marketing and human resources management student who also interns at Leeza's Care Connection.
The group also attracts medical students and health majors who hope to develop practical skills and continue working hands-on with patients after graduating, Schreiber said.
Leeza's Care Connection is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and provides its resources to caregivers for free.
"We 100% are funded by grants, community donations, local sponsors and the fundraisers that we put on," said Marti Colucci, a managing director at Leeza's Care Connection's Columbia office. "We actually do two large fundraisers a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, and this is our largest one by far."
Money raised in this fundraiser will go directly toward programming expenses for Leeza's Care Connection's many free support groups and seminars, Colucci said.
"We have a Parkinson's support group, a grieving support group, a dementia support group, an early-stage support group. Anything, you name it, we probably have a support group for whoever needs it. And so those cost money to run. We hire people to run those, or people volunteer to run those," Averkamp said.
Advocates Against Alzheimer's and Leeza's Care Connection share a common goal: to ease the load of caring for family.
"Caregiving is a lot of work. It is a full-time job that you do not get paid for, so it affected our family heavily," Averkamp said. "I mean, my mom was taking care of three kids at the time when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and so she could not be her full-time caregiver."
Averkamp said her family did not have the money to hire a full-time caregiver for her grandmother, so they had to place her into a memory care facility.
"Going to visit her in a care facility, it was so hard to watch her lose everything," Averkamp said.
Averkamp's mission is to make sure caregivers have the resources to take care of their loved ones at home, without having to juggle a full-time job and other responsibilities.
"It is my goal in life to try to create a fund where caregivers get paid so that they can quit their daytime jobs," Averkamp said. "In the meantime, while we're trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's, we will be able to hopefully give caregivers a wage so that they can take care of their loved ones and stay home with their loved ones without having to worry about finances."
Averkamp's experience is only one of many. According to Colucci, Alzheimer's takes a toll on patients and those who care for them.
"Because of the stress and the exhaustion and just what they have to do to take care of someone else, the caregiver a lot of times ends up with their own chronic illness and ends up passing away before the person they're caring for," Colucci said. "We see that all the time."
The impact on caregivers, Colucci said, is severe, common and measurable.
"Caregiving can take 10 years off of someone's life," Colucci said. "That's pretty much standard."
Leeza's Care Connection's annual Dare2Care event is themed "Find Your Funny." The event aims to help caregivers "cope with stress and build resilience" through humor. It will be live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Nov. 19.
Averkamp encouraged any students interested in getting involved in the student-led group's fall fundraiser to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.