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Caregivers often lack the resources and time to properly care for themselves

Illinois alum finds ‘Amazing way to give back’ through caregiving, internship

Denise Brown and Katherine Lim attended the University of Illinois more than three decades apart, but they have plenty in common.

Both Brown, an Illinois alum, and Lim, a senior in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, are caregivers and have a desire to give back. That is where they intersect.

Brown, who graduated in 1985 from UIUC’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, now operates the Caregivers Years Training Academy, where Lim interned this past summer.

The idea of caregiving has long been a way of life for both.

Brown has been a caregiver, and currently takes care of her dad (90 years old) and mom (87). She started supporting caregivers in 1990.

“I launched my first business with a newsletter for family caregivers called Caregiving,” she said. “And then I launched an online caregiving community in 1996, which I managed and operated through March of 2020.”

For Lim—who calls herself a 1.5 generation Korean immigrant, meaning she was born in Korea but came to the United States when she was little—caregiving is a way of life.

“I think in Asian culture, caregiving for your elder relatives is almost a given,” she said. “And for me personally, I took care of my grandmother. And right now, I take care of my mother because since she can't speak English, I make different vaccination appointments for her. I make other doctor's appointments for her. I sometimes even read her legal documents for her. And it's navigating through the system that I help her with.”

Despite their different upbringings and age gap, Brown and Lim both understand the challenges of being a caregiver.

“You are managing a fragile house of cards,” Brown said. “You're trying to keep so many categories of your life moving forward, even as you are working your way through the health care system, which is complicated and overwhelming. You're managing family dynamics, which can be just as difficult as the health care system. And you're really doing what you can to manage your own stress. But there's so many worries that the stress really is just, at some times, overwhelming throughout the experience.”

Lim agreed, calling the language barrier the one of the biggest issues.

“Most of the time, their relatives cannot speak English. So that's one of the biggest ones. And within that, when they need to follow them to physician appointments, the medical vocabulary—they don't have an M.D. degree in another language. So it's very hard for them to translate that into their native language accurately because they actually might know very little of it, or none.”

Lim also cited technological barriers and diet as hurdles for caregivers.

“Relatives might be more used to their own cultural palate, and they're cooking at home,” she said. “If they're at a long-term care facility or aftercare centers, they have a hard time adjusting to the nursing home's diet. And the facilities have difficulty accommodating all the different cultural foods for their patients. So they particularly have a hard time with diet. The intermediary solution is for their relatives to cook home-style meals, while meeting their nutritional needs at the same time, and then bringing it over to them.”

With these commonalities, it is not a surprise Lim sought to intern for Brown in the summer. Brown’s organization provides training to people who are caring for a family member, or have recently cared for a family member and their caregiving experience has ended.

“Katherine went through our training to become a certified caregiving facilitator, with the goal of creating support groups for students at U of I who might be worried or helping care for a family member, whether it be a grandparent, parent, or sibling,” Brown said.

For Lim, the idea of learning more about caregiving “really hit home.”

“I really wanted to dive in deeper on minority disparities in health care system through organizations that already take part in research. I think the internship (KCH Assistant Professor) and Dr. (Mina) Raj’s research was a great opportunity for me to actually learn more on the subject and help identify how I can give back to the community. I'm starting a registered student organization based on campus for student caregivers.”

For Lim, the internship has helped to shape her future.

“Learning through this research opportunity definitely has got me thinking about my future career path. I want to work towards improving the health care system and later on get a doctorate in this field. I think this research gave me a little taste in many more opportunities I can partake in the future to make an even bigger impact on this issue.”

For Brown, hearing Lim talk about her work on campus makes her smile. It’s the very reason she offers internship opportunities.

“I really feel blessed to be able to be a mentor to students at U of I,” she said. “I enjoy connecting with them. I enjoy hearing about their life as a student. And I feel proud to be able to impact not only their experience at U of I, but what their career path will be. And I think it's really just an amazing way to give back.

“It's a way to keep the relationship with the university in a way that creates all these wins. It's a win for me to have an intern. It's a win for the intern when they connect to a program that's going to help them in their career path. And certainly, it's a win for the university because of the relationship between someone like myself and an intern.”

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