Those who knew my father John knew him as an athlete, a successful businessman, and a family man through and through who was multi-dimensional, humble and generous. To me, he was all of that and more. He taught me so much that I value, including one of the most positive and affirming life lessons I could ever receive, something I carry with me to this day.

He didn’t teach the last lesson I mentioned intentionally. You see, through his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, my father ultimately taught me the value of caregiving and the power of empathy through caring for another person.

Sometimes the phrase “life-changing experience” gets overused, but there’s no better way to describe the journey that began when I chose to become his caregiver.

Phil Tanner with parents

That’s me on the left, joining my mom and dad on a 2001 trip to England.

At the time, I had been evolving through a progressive career in finance with Fedex Corporation. I had every intention of climbing as high as I could up the corporate ladder. In many ways, where I am today is the complete other end of the spectrum from that world of corporate finance. But life threw me a curveball. The onset of my father’s Alzheimer’s thrust upon me a different opportunity: to shift time and focus toward being his caregiver while he valiantly battled the disease.

I had to make a decision: either stay at the plate and try to knock that curveball out of the park, or take a seat on the bench. I wasn’t overly confident that I knew what to do, or that I had the mental fortitude and physical skills to care for my father. However, I certainly knew he deserved the best possible care we could provide.

I chose to stay at the plate.

A Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Dementia

After my dad retired at age 65, our family began to notice a fairly steep decline in his ability to remember basic facts as well as his ability to put concurrent thoughts together. Early on, being the jovial family we are, we joked with him about it, but we also began privately to wonder what was going on. Was it just because he was retired and not “using” his brain as much as he had when he was working?

I knew we had a game changer to deal with when, one day at lunch, he took my hand and looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his face and said, “I just want to figure out what is going on and fix it.” Sadly, a visit to a geriatrician was the first step in learning that what he had couldn’t be fixed. My father had Alzheimer’s and another incurable brain disease called Lewy Body Dementia (LBD).

To put it in simple layman’s terms, both of these diseases were “eating” his brain: one from the inside out, the other from the outside in. Believe it or not, this was a blessing in disguise. Because Alzheimer’s and LBD double-teamed him, he didn’t suffer as long as many people do when they have either one of these terrible diseases.

Learning to Give Care — and Ask for It

By the time he was diagnosed, my father already needed help from my mother, sister and me, and the amount of help he needed increased rapidly. Becoming his caregiver meant that I effectively switched familial roles with him: I became like his parent, feeding him, helping him bathe, and helping him get dressed, as he became more and more like a child, soon depending upon us for all of his basic needs. More than any test could, our family’s experiences and instincts also quickly told us that we would need even more help for him in the very near future.

It was hard.

As hard as it was, however, the time I spent as my father’s caregiver was the most blessed time I have ever experienced. Caregiving brought forward more than I knew I was capable of, skills both practical and emotional that I continue to draw upon every day. Knowing that, much as I wanted the absolute best care for my father, I probably was not always the best suited to provide it, I also learned to reach out for help, to seek guidance from those more experienced than I. We ultimately hired a wonderful in-home care company to help us, and when the time was right as his disease progressed, we took on the challenge of finding an amazing assisted living community for him.

People often live with Alzheimer’s for many years, or even decades, their own suffering compounded by the physical, emotional and financial toll on those caring for them. As I said, my father’s double diagnosis turned out to be a blessing in that respect. From diagnosis to death, his battle lasted just over three years. After many trials and tribulations, many laughs and tears, he passed away in early 2008.

Caring for Caregivers: The Heart of CaregiverHQ

After my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s was over, I sat myself down and took inventory of my life. The experience had opened me up spiritually and tremendously strengthened my faith. It also put me more in tune with who I am and my purpose on this planet. I realized that I wanted to help as many people as I could who were about to start, or were in the middle of, the caregiving journey that I had just gone through.

There was only one problem with that realization. I knew, on the one hand, that I wanted to help, but on the other hand, I also knew I had a mortgage, three kids and a wife. I had to figure out a way to transform my desire to help into something that also enabled me to earn a living. With that in mind, in October 2009, I started Always Best Care Senior Services, a small company providing in-home care support and also help to families transitioning someone into assisted living when the time was right.

In short, I started a business mirroring my experiences caring for my father.

I had walked a “million miles” in my clients’ shoes, and I was eager to exercise the skills and apply the lessons learned during my caregiving journey: empathy, understanding, patience, and, above all, focusing on doing what is right.

These same guiding principles that started my business and helped it grow caught the attention of Highmark’s Business Innovation Team as they were researching the business concept that eventually became CaregiverHQ. In the beginning, we discussed how my company could become one of many quality-driven service providers within the new business model they envisioned. After many detailed discussions and meetings, a great working relationship was established that eventually led me down a whole new career path — bringing to market a service focused on caring and providing resources for other caregivers: CaregiverHQ.

I am glad I chose to be there as my father’s caregiver. Without walking that difficult and sometimes treacherous road of caring for him during his struggle with Alzheimer’s, I would not be as blessed and humbled as I am today to be leading the amazing CaregiverHQ team.

My father passed away, but he lives on in all of the wonderful lessons that came out of being his caregiver — lessons that I try to embody every day.