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Help for Caregivers

Cuts, rural challenges strain service

Pearlean Cannon, 74, whose spouse, Charles, 81, has dementia, lives in a predominantly African American Milwaukee neighborhood. She started a support group at her church to get the word out that there's help for caregivers. For many of her neighbors, having dementia is considered shameful, Cannon said. "I try to neutralize that by bringing in speakers," she said. "I refer them to the 24-7 line that they can call to ask questions."

Thirty-seven Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRC) have been set up in 68 of Wisconsin's 72 counties to offer a one-stop resource that can connect caregivers to services. Staffed with social services professionals, stocked with libraries of information and bolstered by connections to nonprofit groups and corps of volunteers, the ADRCs have replaced the old system of dividing services among county offices.

The private, nonprofit Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources provides technical services at ADRCs and offers a statewide toll-free number (866-843-9810) and a website to help people find local resources.

AARP Wisconsin is taking a lead in advocating for caregivers and helping more of them access community services, said state director Sam Wilson. AARP Wisconsin offers presentations on caregiving, such as "Powerful Tools for Caregivers," maintains a website and toll-free help line (866-448-3611) and lobbies for legislation and public funding to provide home care services and respite care.

"These are resources that would be pennywise and pound foolish to cut as a way to reduce deficits," said Wilson, noting that failure to support family caregivers forces more people into nursing homes — at far greater financial cost to society.

While most support services are provided in southern Wisconsin's urban areas, the percentage of older people is growing fastest in rural areas where services such as home-delivered meals and transportation to doctor's appointments are harder to provide.

Retiree influx up north

Lynn Gall of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services estimates that the percentage of residents 65 and older in most northern counties could surpass 30 percent by 2035.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook," said Geri Heppe, a gerontologist hired as a program specialist for the newly formed ADRC of the Northwoods, which serves four rural counties and three Indian tribes. An influx of retirees in the popular vacation area has already boosted the over-60 population to 34 percent in Vilas County and 29 percent in Oneida County, she said.

Although the state plans to set up more rural ADRCs, they often have little money, have a smaller pool of volunteers and face transportation hurdles, particularly on wintry rural roads.

Kay Nolan is a writer and editor living in Pewaukee, Wis.

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AARP Chief Executive Officer Barry Rand and AARP Executive Vice President Deb Whitman discuss the experience of caregiving and AARP's resources for caregivers.

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