There are many ways to help out a caregiver
I’ve been exchanging emails and phone calls with a woman who is taking care of her husband at home. As his Alzheimer’s progresses, her days and nights become more and more challenging. She never knows when he is going to wake up and need her. She can’t always anticipate what he might do next, like lock himself in the bathroom. Hardest of all, she knows she can’t give in to her grief and cry because it scares him. He needs to see a smiling face.
There are a lot of brave, committed family caregivers in our state who are doing the right thing, one day at a time. I hope they are reaching out to the Aging and Disability Resource Centers or the Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska for help navigating the system of care. Senior advocates believe there is a lot more our state could be doing to help family caregivers, such as providing easy-to-access family assessments with linkage to support services.
Policymakers do recognize that helping families keep loved ones at home is a lot less expensive than Medicaid-funded residential care. As the baby boomers become seniors, advocacy organizations are really pushing for increased family caregiver support. However, even with increased funding, government can only do so much.
This column is about our own obligation to help family caregivers. Don’t underestimate how great an impact even the simplest act of kindness can have on a family caregiver. For example, a woman who is taking care of her husband told me how a young couple down the street invited them both to Sunday brunch. These thirty-somethings were kind and understanding when her husband’s dementia caused him to lose his train of thought and spill food. It turned out to be a wonderful morning and a much needed break from unrelieved solo caregiving.
Another family caregiver told me how grateful she was that a friend took her out to lunch and let her talk about anything other than illness and grief—books, movies, funny things the grandkids did. Maybe it only lasted an hour, but the lunch date provided a good dose of “distraction therapy,” an opportunity to look away from disheartening things and to have a little fun again.
Policymakers talk about the “Silver Tsunami,” the rapidly rising number of Alaskans who are entering their senior years. There are good things about the aging of Alaska that we shouldn’t forget. Seniors spend a lot of money in Alaska—they are a rising economic force in our state. Retired seniors also donate their time, talent and funds to non-profit organizations promoting the arts, protecting the environment and providing services to neighbors in need.
However, the aging of Alaska also means there will be a lot more families struggling to take care of older people with chronic illnesses at home.
So here is a shout out to those of you who still have your health and can get around—I include myself in that group. What can each of us do to lend a hand to the family caregivers we know? Donate a few hours of respite care or housekeeping? Offer a homemade casserole? Run some errands? Listen compassionately? This is the part that government can’t do for our neighbors and that we can do. I think the next 20 years will be a test of our character as a state. Let’s hope we pass that test with flying colors.
Diana Weber is the Alaska Long Term Care Ombudsman. Visit http://www.akoltco.org to find out more about how the Ombudsman protects the rights of seniors. The public can also submit complaints online via the website.