Merced County woman helps dementia caregivers find cultural connection

Lillian Sanchez has seen the impact of dementia both personally and professionally. When her company, Dignity Health, started participating in the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® it gave Lillian the opportunity to help families facing the disease, especially those in the Hispanic community. Lillian shares why she thinks supporting Walk is so important.

Lillian at the Merced Walk to End Alzheimer's
Lillian (right) at the Merced Walk

Watching her great uncle

As a child, Lillian grew up next door to her great uncle and his very large family. Lillian’s great uncle was a social butterfly and a hard worker who taught his children to go and explore their world. As was expected, his children grew up and moved away to live lives of their own.

Living next door, Lillian and her family watched as her great uncle began repeating the same conversations over and over. Still social as ever, he began to talk to anyone that would listen, including people walking by on the street. When he totaled his car, his eldest daughter, who still lived in Merced, asked Lillian’s family to keep an eye on him.

While Lillian’s family had no problem helping with her great uncle, when he started needing help at odd hours of the night it became clear he could no longer live at home alone. “It was challenging to see the whole progression,” said Lillian. “He could no longer be left alone. He was pretty dependent on one of my aunts, his caregiver, until he passed.”

Caring for a community

Lillian’s great uncle died in 2003, after Lillian had already completed her undergraduate degree. Keeping his house in the family, it was first sold to her brother and eventually sold to Lillian who lives there currently. While her great uncle was her first experience with the disease, it wouldn’t be her last. Now, Lillian helps with the health and wellness of many living in Merced County.

Through her work, Lillian looks at the needs of her community and how her organization can help. She has found that there is always a need for more education and information on dementia.

“We see a lot of families walking this [dementia] path,” said Lillian. “Someone in their family has the diagnosis and needs more support or respite care. There are so many resources, we’re letting them know they’re not alone.”

The Alzheimer’s Association® and Dignity Health have worked together in the past to bring education opportunities to Merced County and the surrounding areas. “Education is empowerment,” said Lillian. “If you don’t know things, it’s often really challenging to access what you don’t know. When I started [with Dignity Health] my role was to empower patients – whatever that means to each person.”

Facing stigma

According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2023 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report Approximately 13% of Hispanics who are 65 or older have Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely than Whites to have dementia and 57% believe that a significant loss of memory or cognitive abilities is a normal part of aging.

Having seen the effects of the disease firsthand, Lillian knows the stigma the Hispanic community faces. “It’s almost like you don’t want to acknowledge it until it’s too advanced and it’s too hard to negate what’s happening,” said Lillian. “[People think], ‘Oh they’re just forgetful. There’s not a name for that, it just comes with age, that’s natural.’ People don’t talk about it. They label it with one thing and they’re not looking at it [like it’s] a disease in the brain.”

Lillian worries that sentiments like the one she mentioned will lead people to just ignore the problem instead of seeking help and getting educated. She also sees the importance of getting the support of leaders in the community. “If leaders in the community are saying, ‘This is true, this is something we’ve learned and seen,’ then [the community] is able to accept their credibility,” said Lillian. “I’ve seen it and I feel like there are ways to help people get past [the stigma].”

Dignity Health's Walk team at the Merced Walk to End Alzheimer's
Dignity Health’s Walk team in 2016

The Promise Garden

For the past several years Dignity Health has been a sponsor of Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Merced. This year they are the Promise Garden sponsor. The Promise Garden is where participants plant flowers representing their connection to the cause in the ground to form a colorful display. The flowers are also held high during the Promise Garden Ceremony, and carried with them as they walk.

[Image of promise flower meaning]

Every dollar raised at Walk benefits those affected by Alzheimer’s disease in the community. “Often times you don’t see where that money goes,” said Lillian. “I’ve seen a chunk of funding [from the Association] provided to UC Merced for continuing [dementia] research. We all want the same thing, a cure, and that’s leading us in that direction. To know [funds] are going towards research [and that they’ve] been instrumental in the breakthroughs, early treatment and looking at how [the disease] is passed on. I want the garden to be full of white flowers.”

Connecting with others

Because of her great uncle, participating in Walk is personal to Lillian. Since her company started participating in Walk, Lillian has been on the Walk Committee helping out wherever she was needed.

Lillian loves meeting all the different types of people from her community that sign up to be a part of the committee and make Walk happen. She also enjoys seeing the community come together for a family in need. “Being able to support those families during such a challenging time,” said Lillian. “Even if it’s just one family you know you helped, it makes it worth it. I want [resources] to be available for all families going forward.”

Lillian is also a team captain, and in past years, she and her ex-husband made a personal donation to be a Walk sponsor themselves.

Being with her community

Lillian looks forward to Walk day every year, and the same is true for this year. “Seeing the sea of purple and the flower garden,” said Lillian. “Seeing everyone together for a cause. To see people connecting with people and everyone sharing their stories with their personal connection. Connecting with families and people who’ve gone through the same journey.”

Like she does with her job, Lillian loves to see the community come together and truly see they’re not alone in their journey.

You can join Lillian’s team, Dignity Health Mercy Medical Center or start your own team for Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Merced on October 7 at Applegate Park. Not in Merced? Visit to find a Walk near you.

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