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Caring for Caregivers

Help for those who help others

En español | Did you know that caring for a beloved parent, friend or spouse can hurt not only emotionally, but also physically?

Caregiving can take its toll. And with the number of Americans age 65-plus projected to double by 2030, caregiving demands will only increase. "But how do we take care of the caregiver who needs help navigating a complex, fragmented system of care with little support?" asks gerontologist Debra Sheets. Into the breech, progressive programs are offering family caregivers support and coping strategies, steering them to community resources, and introducing them to other caregivers.

See also: 9 tips to make caregiving easier.

Here are a few:

The Caregiver Teleconnection, San Antonio

How It Works

Caregivers in San Antonio who can't or won't leave their homes and feel isolated participate in one-hour teleconferences in English or Spanish. They dial in to hear an expert — a physician, attorney, therapist, financial expert or gerontologist, for example — discuss a topic affecting caregivers, offer tips and resources, and answer listeners' questions and comments. Caregivers get to connect with others in the trenches, too.

How It Really Works

Debra Schultz, 52, whose husband has early-onset Alzheimer's, has participated in more than 15 sessions from her Cedar Park, Texas, home. "I don't have to spend 30 minutes to get to a location and 30 minutes back and arrange for someone to watch my husband," she says.

Another draw is the phone's anonymity, says Schultz. "Here I can say what I want and don't have to worry about what the other person thinks."

Share the Care, Orlando, Fla.

How It Works

Caregivers take an online survey at that asks about their current situation, the kind of help they'd like, their financial resources, and the mental and physical health of the caregiver as well as the patient. Based on the answers, a social worker or geriatric specialist creates a tailor-made list of services useful to the caregiver, such as adult day care, meal delivery, transportation, counseling, case management or in-home assessment.

Survey respondents in central Florida can then click on vetted service providers in their area. Other cities in Florida and in other states hope to follow suit soon.

How It Really Works

Last year, Lou Minnis, 55, of Orlando, felt his life imploding. He was juggling several responsibilities — a wife with multiple sclerosis, a teenage daughter who had to be shuttled to lacrosse and band practice, and a full-time job as a deputy sheriff.

After Minnis took the survey, a social worker called to tell him a grant would pay for someone to go to Minnis' house two days a week for three hours and feed his wife lunch. Another two days of the week Share the Care arranged not only day care, but a bus to get her there. They invited Minnis to their annual weekend event to meet other caregivers, and found him respite care (which he had never heard of).

"The organization came to me at a time when it looked like there was no hope," says Minnis, who is also a minister. "Even though I help save people's spiritual lives, Share the Care was the one who showed me the light at the end of the tunnel."

Next: How caregiving can hurt caregivers. >>

Caregiver Champions, Pittsburgh

How It Works

The Pittsburgh-based program brings together seasoned family caregivers who "get" the experience with a group of newbie adult children and spouses in the throes of caregiving. A veteran caretaker runs six free, face-to-face, structured two-hour sessions. In them, a geriatric expert:

  • Explains necessary legal and medical documents, such as health care proxy, power of attorney and a living will.
  • Connects caregivers with services they didn't know existed or didn't know they were eligible for.
  • Helps with adult sibling or spousal tension.
  • Teaches caregivers how to sift through bureaucracy and make two calls instead of 10 to reach the right person.

How It Really Works

Sandy Troutman and her husband, David, decided to enroll in Caregiving Champions after David's mother, 90, came to live with them. There was friction between Sandy and her mother-in-law, creating tension between her and David. "The group made me realize I'm not the only one with these feelings," says Sandy. "It doesn't make it easier, but at least I understand it better."

That's because of people like Roseann Martino, 58. The caregiving veteran cared for her mother for six years until she passed away, and now is in charge of her dad, who has dementia. "People come into my sessions crying. They are angry, feel guilty or are depressed," says Martino. "But when we give them the information and they can share their lives with other caregivers, they become empowered and gain better control over the situation."

More help for caregivers

Sally Abrahms writes about boomers and aging. She is based in Boston.

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