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June 27, 2006

Aging network supports caregivers

As their parents age, many Baby Boomers eager to provide home care are finding themselves in the position of serving as their parents’ caregivers without the skills or support they really need to do the job. Often husbands and wives, siblings and other relatives face the same challenges of caring for a frail or dependent elder family member.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents and specialists are part of a statewide network to provide education to help caregivers take care of their family members as well as themselves. Family and consumer sciences agents like Evelyn Deloatch of Alamance County and Susan Garkalns of Randolph are among the group, and they each say the program is one of the most rewarding things she has done.

Deloatch and Garkalns are among nearly 40 North Carolina agents trained in Powerful Tools for Caregivers, now licensed by AARP in North Carolina. Deloatch and Rutherford County agent Tracy Davis participated in a special training program that qualifies them to train other agents.

Federal legislation during the Clinton era created the National Family Caregiver Support Act, which led to the funding of state and regional programs to assist family caregivers. Shortly after its inception, Dr. Luci Bearon, gerontologist and human development specialist in N.C. State University’s Family and Consumer Sciences Department, and colleagues organized a Caregiver Education Leadership Council to foster partnerships among N.C. AARP, Cooperative Extension, the N.C. Division of Aging and Adult Services and other agencies that serve senior adults.

The state Division of Aging sponsored Bearon and a Duke University colleague to attend a national training and to bring the Powerful Tools course to North Carolina. According to Bearon, “caregiving is one of the top issues among professionals who serve older adults.

“People are living longer, and they often rely on family members for care,” Bearon said. “This can sometimes present a burden on the family caregiver.” The Powerful Tools course gives caregivers skills to take care of themselves while caring for others, for example, how to handle emotions, locate community resources, make informed family decisions and more.

Since their training in the Powerful Tools program, Deloatch and Davis have conducted two training programs for agents and other class leaders. In Alamance and Guilford counties, Deloatch has provided the six-week program for about 60 caregivers.

What means so much to the participants is knowing that there are others who understand the joys, and challenges, of caring for someone they love. Some groups bond so closely over the class experience that members decide to continue meeting for support.

“The fact that the participants get to network and know they’re not alone means a lot,” Deloatch says. “Caregivers work in isolation, and this gives them the chance to meet other people and see how others are coping.”

The program focuses on coping with stress, communicating with family members and care receivers, decision making and arranging for caregiver down time. “This is one of the best programs that we’ve offered in terms of working with aging,” DeLoatch said.

Garkalns agrees. She was trained in Powerful Tools in 2001 and has offered two sessions each year since 2002. She partners with Mattie Deloney, an AARP volunteer.
Garkalns estimates that they have trained 80-90 people during that time.

With some funding from her regional Council of Governments, Garkalns has been able to offer the program at no cost to the participants. The $20 cost of each person’s material is covered, and the local hospital provides respite care for care receivers at no cost so that caregivers can attend the class.

Because self-care is the goal of the program, Garkalns and her training partner try to pamper the participants. They provide perks that reinforce messages learned in class: bottled water to encourage them to increase their intake, flowers to plant in the yard, a caregiver survival kit with small treats and a red rose on Valentine’s Day.

Randolph County is relatively rural, so caregivers often believe they are alone, until they come to the class, Garkalns said. They can become very emotional, sharing deep feelings about their role. Many want the class to go on beyond six weeks. At least one of the Randolph County groups continues meeting for dinner regularly.

In addition to the caregiver program, Randolph County offers a very successful program for grandparents raising grandchildren. The six-week program meets evenings, providing families with dinner, then separate into groups for youth and grandparents. Youth get time for tutoring and homework, while their grandparents participate in educational sessions dealing with their “not so new” role, including legal and school issues, stress management, and guidance and discipline.

The reasons these grandparents are raising their grandchildren vary, from parents’ abandonment to drug problems. Some grandparents are raising children whose parents are away at war. “There are lots of reasons why their grandparents have these kids, but the reasons are all sad,” Garkalns said.

These grandparents have many fears: that they can’t support children on a fixed income, that they won’t live to see them grow up or that they will fail these children. The program helps them learn to become a family, even providing participants with a scrapbook they can use to capture their own family memories.

The program has been rewarding, and Garkalns says she would like to extend it to eight weeks. Randolph County’s 4-H program has been involved, providing activities for youth while their grandparents participate in the program, along with some college-age mentors. “We all feel like we’re doing something good for somebody,” Garkalns said.

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at June 27, 2006 11:30 AM