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Waiting on the DAWN

Judy Cornish2Judy Cornish, ’99, was a divorced mother of three when a friend talked her into registering for community college in Coos Bay.

“I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship where I was told how stupid I was for 16 years,” she said. “And I was convinced I was going to flunk out.”

She quickly found out that wasn’t true. She completed her associate degree in Coos Bay, and then moved to La Grande and finished her bachelor’s at EOU, receiving four major awards at graduation.

Cornish was accepted at more than 30 law schools and received scholarships as well. But unwilling to uproot her son as he was entering high school, she stayed in La Grande as a psychosocial skills trainer.

After a year, though, she faced a use-it-or-lose-it situation with her scholarship, and enrolled at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland.

“For the first year at least, I felt so out of place — a 40-year-old single mom whose previous education had given her little if any preparation for the study of American law,” Cornish said.

“I felt so out of place — a 40-year-old single mom whose previous education had given her little if any preparation for the study of American law.”

She persevered and embarked on a law career that included stints at the Oregon Supreme Court, a family practice firm in Portland, and finally her own practice. But she began to realize the field wasn’t right for her.

“I had eight years in and I tried to make it work, but it wasn’t a good personality fit,” she said. “By nature, I’m more of a coach than an advocate.”

So she closed all of her cases and moved to Moscow, Idaho, where she felt an affinity with the mountains and the weather. It wasn’t long before her offer to look after a neighbor’s elderly parent turned into a rewarding career, one that grew from her experience in law school.

Cornish founded Dementia & Alzheimer’s Wellbeing Network (DAWN), a method of caring for people with dementia by targeting the emotional distress that accompanies cognitive decline.

“The DAWN method came from my experience of going into law school so abruptly, where my intuitive thinking skills were of no value,” she said. “Law is so focused on the use of rational thought. [My clients] were experiencing the opposite: losing their rational thinking skills and being forced to function with only intuition.”

Cornish’s DAWN Method has resonated with caregivers, who laud it for helping improve clients’ quality of life and ability to remain in familiar surroundings. Her 2017 book, “The Dementia Handbook,” is one of Amazon’s top-selling publications on the subject, and she delivered a TEDx Talk about it in Spokane.

The road to success hasn’t been easy or direct for Cornish, but she never expected any different.

“Life is convoluted,” she said. “We should expect difficulties and detours, and just keep on carrying on.”

This article first appeared in Community Vitality, Spring 2018, a publication of The Ford Family Foundation, tfff.org/community-vitality. It is reprinted with permission.