As the daughter of a Methodist minister in upstate New York, Elizabeth Shelnutt has always been drawn to elderly people.
“My family has been involved with all populations, but specifically the elderly through nursing homes, Meals on Wheels, delivering bulletins to shut-ins,” she said.
“I connect with them,” Shelnutt said. “I enjoy them and their wisdom.”
Little is known about what causes dementia, and its treatments are limited. But the disease essentially steals away loved ones. In a series beginning Sept. 9, The Times will explore dementia, how it affects our community and the resources available to those affected.
The Cleveland resident and Army veteran now gets to fan that enthusiasm in her new role as executive director of The Guest House, a daytime medical care and activity center for seniors at 360 Oak St., Gainesville.
Shelnutt, 34, takes over for Dana Chapman, who left earlier this year to become executive director of ITNLanier, a nonprofit organization that provides transportation services for Hall County seniors and the visually impaired.
“Eventually, I would like to grow and have multiple senior day cares, not just in the (Hall County) area, but all around,” Shelnutt said in an interview earlier this week.
One of her goals is “to connect and network with other businesses and referral services,” she said.
“We understand (clients) may need more support than we can’t provide for them, so I would like to be able to connect them to (other resources),” Shelnutt said. “I’d like it so we can make their move to the next level smoother and less stressful for the families.”
Her desire to help others stems largely from her Army experience.
Deployed to Iraq with a job in civil affairs, she worked one-on-one with the population there.
“We traveled ... and helped rebuild communities,” Shelnutt said.
“The Army connected me to the world of psychology and how to understand people better,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with people.”
Shelnutt wound up in Georgia through the Army, and she and her husband settled in Cleveland. From there, she went to Brenau University, eventually completing her master’s degree in gerontology.
Shelnutt went on to work in two geriatric psychiatric inpatient units, where 90 percent of the patients had dementia, many of them also struggling with chronic depression or medical issues.
After a 1-year stint the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, where she worked with veterans and others, The Guest House executive director post came open.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity,” Shelnutt said. “I had been interested in The Guest House for a long time. ... I’ve always been interested in what they provide, because you don’t see senior day cares.
“It’s new and very much needed and I’m hoping to grow it. The community can really utilize this type of respite for caregivers. I think this program adds so much value.”
Many of the seniors at The Guest House have dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.
“While they’re here in the program, we’re trying to maintain their dignity, their quality of life,” Shelnutt said. “They can still enjoy doing activities. They may need more supervision, more prompting, but they’re still capable here.”
And she can relate to the relief The Guest House can give to busy caregivers.
“I have five kids (ages 1-13),” Shelnutt said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it takes a village, period, to get through life.”