Caregivers Conference Offers Resources, Advice for Caregivers and Elderly

 

By Lura Jackson

 

The role of caregiver is one of the most challenging in our society – it requires us to set aside our own needs and often our own life expectations to meet the needs of another. Perhaps equally challenging is the process of aging, during which we are faced with physical limitations that may be difficult to accept. A Caregivers Conference was held at Washington County Community College on Friday, April 28th to share advice and resources to the aging and to their caregivers.

Kara James, At Home Downeast program manager, was the keynote speaker. James described her passion for caring for the elderly as being rooted in respect. “Elders have worked hard their entire lives. They have contributed to their communities. They have so much wisdom. In our phrenetic society, they tend to be forgotten.”

James said that as a society we are living longer and longer, and creating an aging plan is one important step in preparing for the inevitable. She added that Washington County is the most rural county in the most rural state in the union, and as such, we have our own unique challenges to contend with.

There are steps we can taking to aging that will make it better for us, James explained. The first step is accepting it – “We’re all traveling the same path. Aging well is hard work, but if anyone can do hard work, it’s Mainers. We are all strong and resourceful.” Being grateful every day for what we do have rather than focusing on what we do not have is another powerful tool. Looking at how we can retain our independence and who we can trust to gradually take over different roles in our life will grant us peace of mind. “Some elders don’t know half of the people making decisions in their lives.” Nurturing our spirit, mind, and body is an active process that will make aging well more comfortable. “Be good to yourself. Be good to those around you. Let go of the past. Open yourself up to healing and forgiveness. Holding on to negative energy for years and years is so unhealthy.” Being creative in the challenges facing you will make otherwise unmanageable situations more manageable. James described how creative bartering can be a method of accomplishing a task around the house, such as having the lawn mowed, in exchange for watching a child or doing math tutoring.

Appreciating the time that we have is a critical approach to living well. “We're living longer - look forward to it! Take the time now to return to your old passions, or to rediscover new ones. What brings a smile to your face?” Having a good sense of humor “each day and every day” will make even painful days more bearable. Recognizing and accepting the reality of rural Maine is one way to prepare for the long, dark winters. “Wishing the winter away is not thriving. How are you going to get out and see people?” Isolation, James explained, is deadly. “We need to stay involved with people in little ways.” Another way to circumvent the doldrums is by increasing variety in our daily lives and routine. While there are some people that have routines that they never deviate from, for most people this is ultimately unhealthy. “It's important to change things up.” Lastly, James said that the more we can do to empower ourselves - such as by creating aging plans - the more we will gain dignity, strength, courage, and confidence. “Rural Maine is a good place to live. We need to work together to lean on each other.”

Lisa King, Social Services Director at Maine Veterans Home in Machias, shared advise for caregivers, drawing from her own role taking care of her parents while working full time and caring for a young family. 

First and foremost, King explained, is to know that knowledge is power. Gather information on the illness that you are dealing with so that you will be prepared for the manifestation of its symptoms. Otherwise, you may be prone to taking the aggression or irritability of dementia personally when you are assisting someone that has it. Read books, go to workshops, and attend support groups for those who are contending with a similar illness.

Having a backup plan will grant a significant peace of mind to caregivers. “Look into assisted living and nursing homes - it doesn’t mean you have to access it, but it gives you options.” Failing to do so could mean that your loved one winds up in Boston or Portland. King suggests going to local facilities and seeing how the residents are treated there.

Getting organized will save some headaches, King explained. “Usually as a caregiver you’re dealing with a lot of people. Get a notebook, keep it by the phone. Write down names, organizations, and resources.”

Being prepared for paying for assisted living facilities will help to offset the initial financial shock. Insurance and Mainecare will cover some or most of the payments depending on income, and the Veterans Administration will provide a stipend to veterans. At the Maine Veterans home, King said that the cost is $255 a day, but veterans get a stipend of $45 toward that cost.

Creating an emergency information guide for your loved one will ensure that if anything happens to you as the primary caregiver, someone else can fill that role. Take down all the medications that they are taking and the doctors that they see, so anyone could care for your loved one if you are not there.

One of the most difficult decisions when we are caring for a loved one is that of putting them into an assisted living facility. That decision should come after an assessment of whether or not the person is safe on their own if you need to step out to run errands or go to an appointment yourself. Can your loved one call 9-1-1 if they need to? 

If you are caring for a patient with dementia, King advises that it is important to not wait too long before bringing them into a facility. King explained that dementia erodes the ability of the individual to process new situations and to utilize their social habits. “I’ve had people say to me that they’re ‘waiting until he doesn’t recognize me anymore.’ That’s a good option for the caregiver but not for the person with dementia.” She described one patient in her facility that is still having a very difficult time adjusting to the new location, even after seven months. “He’s still so confused. The ones that come earlier on, it’s better for them to adjust.”

King recommends talking about your feelings and openly acknowledging your situation whenever possible. Reflecting on her own experience, she shared, “I had my days of having a meltdown.” She felt helpless and wondered why all the burdens were falling on her. “I felt like a terrible daughter. But, for many years, I lost my normal life. It's okay to feel that way. We’re human. Find people to talk to. It’s super important.”

Lastly, King advised that caregivers take time for themselves to avoid getting burned out. “Even if you can't leave your home, take fifteen minutes and sit and read a book. If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you care for your person?” Taking a walking or even simply stretching is something that you can do for yourself - and that can make a major difference in mental health. 

There are resources available for caregivers who are in need of additional assistance with their loved ones. Homecare of Maine will come by and perform basic homemaking and personal care services for a cost of $20 an hour plus mileage. Care and Comfort is another private pay service that goes a step beyond by providing nursing services, adult long term care, and caring companions. For those in need of transportation assistance, Beth C. Wright can provide cancer-related transportation. Sunrides Community Transit will bring the elderly to their appointments, and WHCA will do the same for Mainecare recipients. For veterans, Wreaths Across America will make sure that cancer patients get to where they need to go at no cost. 

Caregivers who are themselves in need of temporary respite can contact the Eastern Agency on Aging or into facilities such as Robert and Mary's Place, a day-home for people with memory loss located in Machias and Ellsworth. King said that there is a program available through the Eastern Agency on Aging called the Caregiver Respite Program that can provide caregivers with up to $3,800 a year to place their loved one into temporary care, or to reimburse the costs of at-home living. Funds for the program are available from the State of Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services and there is often a waiting list.

To contact the Eastern Agency on Aging for additional resources, call 1-800-432-7812.