Pam Shields: Fighting Alzheimer’s One Sit-Up at a Time

Pam ShieldsBy the time her two daughters were in their preteens, Pam Shields realized that the frequent travel her job in the IT industry demanded no longer worked for her and her family. She wanted to be home more, more available to her kids. So in 1999 she left a high-paying, fast-track job in the corporate world to pursue something that had always interested her: personal fitness.

She also knew she had good managerial and leadership skills, and so by January 2000 she had already started her new physical fitness business. But it wasn’t without trade-offs. “My income,” she says bluntly, “decreased by about 95%. I went from a six-figure salary to almost nothing.”

Pam Shields with Earnestine Shepard
Shields with Earnestine Shepard, the oldest living female bodybuilder, age 79.

She persevered. She opened a fitness studio in Parker, Colorado, where she taught classes and worked as a personal trainer, and gradually built the business over a period of ten years. Her range of clients included just about anyone who walked through the door. But all that changed in 2010 when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Recently divorced and with her children now grown, she decided to relocate to Maryland and become her mother’s caregiver.

She shuttered her business with plans to start anew in Maryland; this time focusing exclusively on older customers. “As clients get older, their focus is different. It’s not all about appearance or fitting into a size 2 dress. For people at the older end of the spectrum it’s really more about working toward being healthy. To me, it’s a more serious reason to want to work out and lose weight, and I gravitated to that.”

But as she experienced firsthand the needs of a person with dementia, she realized that she could do important work in that area. “My mother had always been very healthy. She used to get out and walk 3 miles regularly. But then she did what a lot of people do when they are in the early stages of dementia – they start to retreat. They want to stay in the house, sit a lot, watch a lot of TV. They don’t want to go out, perhaps for fear of making a mistake, or saying the wrong thing, or not being able to find their way home. But actually the worst thing for a person with dementia to do is to stop moving and interacting and stimulating the brain.”

Shields began to do some research. “I tend to dive into things once I start to get involved. I went to every seminar, read everything I could get my hands on, and became a volunteer for the National Alzheimer’s Association. Eventually I became part of their speakers’ bureau and now I give talks educating people on the disease.”

By 2011 she had established Shields Fitness in Maryland, but now, in addition to working with healthy older clients, she was also focusing on clients with dementia. “Currently my business is probably half working with people with dementia or other cognitive issues; the other half is people in their 50s and 60s who simply want to improve their physical fitness and live a healthier lifestyle.” Shields works with clients in their homes and also goes to assisted living facilities to work with residents, where she does group or individual classes.

“There’s a big difference between working with healthy seniors and people with dementia. I feel like I’m becoming less of a personal trainer and more of a social worker; it’s a cross between the two. And I’m very much okay with that.”

Shields has found that there is plenty of need for the services she is offering, so her next step is figuring out how to grow the business while still balancing the demands of caregiving. “I moved in with my mother so I could be there for her, but I also need to focus on my business. I have to consider my own retirement – I’ll be 56 this year. I’m working on developing a new arm of the business that will allow me to create and market a methodology that can be used by others working with clients with cognitive issues. Ultimately, this will bring me back around to being able to spend more time with my mom. As I grow my business, I need to grow it in a way that will generate more passive income.”

Pam Shields with her LogoShields knows that it might have been easier to join an established gym or fitness studio, but decided against it. “So much of the fitness world is driven by making money. Granted, we all need to make money, but I truly am motivated by the need to make this a healthier world. Dementia is a disease that could potentially bankrupt our healthcare system. There’s no cure for it, but one of the most important things a person can do is live a healthy lifestyle.”

And Shields’ concept has legs. She recently won the D.C. round of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s InnovateHer business challenge, where she pitched her ideas for a non-pharmaceutical approach to fighting Alzheimer’s. Her approach focuses on using exercise, social interaction, cognitive stimulation, and music therapy to delay the onset or slow the progression of cognitive diseases.

Shields reflects on her choices. “For the first few years after I left my corporate job I really missed the money, but I’ve honestly never regretted it. I’ve had signs all along the way that I made the right decision. Sometimes I miss the money, but I think I’ve been pretty lucky, pretty blessed. I started my fitness business with a solid business background. I had experience with business planning, marketing, technology, and human resources through my corporate job. I sometimes see fitness trainers who are good at training but don’t understand the business end of it. I was fortunate to have both of those pieces.”

Tips from Pam Shields
  • If you are thinking of starting a business, choose something that you love; something that has some meaning for you. You’ll need that passion to get you through the difficult times.
  • Network, network, network. It’s so important. Don’t worry about someone taking your idea. There will always be competition regardless. You’re going to be better off having a strong network.
  • If you don’t have a business background, get online. There is so much free information online; learn as much as you can.

5 thoughts on “Pam Shields: Fighting Alzheimer’s One Sit-Up at a Time

  1. What an inspiring story, Pam, your life story really resonated with me. I also took the leap to start a business, Dancing Divas, for women in South Africa ( at the young age of 55. I also took an incredible drop in salary. But I would not change what I am doing either, despite less income.

    We are not working with people with dementia but we have found that our work with more mature women very much reflects your own experience, except that we use dance to transform. We have had a couple of women in our studio who were in the very early stages of dementia and found that the combination of dance, music and social interaction (including physical touch), seemed to have very positive results to ‘get through’ to these special women. May you go from strength to strength with your endeavors. Tina

  2. Pam … you are just the person I need … my mother is in early stage of Alz and not going out much but says she wants to exercise … I am her caregiver along with my dad who is 81yrs old … I need ideas, support and exercise … (I have started to run/walk 4 miles every other day but starting to have some physical challenges) … we must talk … thank you for just posting your story … it’s encouraging just reading it!! your ole friend …Michell

  3. Pam your story like you is so inspiring. As we age our parents age new solutions must be discovered that are not medicating to numbness or locked away. Music and exercise is a great option. Touching is so important it keeps us connected. I salute you and all you efforts and your kindness in your desire to help not just your mom but others. my shero

  4. So much of our medical research is aimed at pharmaceuticals. I am a firm believer that there are so often solutions right under our nose – we just need to figure out to uncover them. Kudos to you for pursuing this! Your mom is very blessed to have you watching over her.

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