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Caregivers: Take Care of Yourself First

'Prepare to Care' and 'Powerful Tools' seminars offer support

Teri Swezey, of Carrboro, hopes to heighten awareness of caregiving issues by walking 3,000 miles.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Teri Swezey, of Carrboro, hopes to heighten awareness of caregiving issues by walking 3,000 miles. Since 2001, AARP North Carolina volunteers have taught “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” to 10,000 people.

Teri Swezey had trouble concentrating. The 57-year-old's thoughts were divided between her job as a public health researcher and her home in Carrboro, where she was the primary caregiver for her mother, who had dementia.

"I was constantly worrying about my mom," Swezey said. "As a caregiver, I was trying hard to stay healthy, and that's hard to do when you are worried."

See also: Caregivers can get paid.

A 2009 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving (PDF) found that 65.7 million Americans, someone from about 1 in 3 households, work as unpaid caregivers.

The report also found that 17 percent of caregivers said their health had worsened because of their additional responsibilities. The longer someone worked as a caregiver, the more likely they were to describe their health as fair or poor.

Roughly 300 AARP-trained volunteers offer courses throughout North Carolina to ease the often emotionally rocky and sometimes physically taxing transition to caregiving. This means reminding caregivers to tend to their own health, pointing them to community resources and reinforcing that they need to delegate some tasks.

Put your mask on first

Experts liken the process to the oxygen mask on a plane: If you don't take care of yourself first, looking after your loved ones becomes more difficult.

"What's resonating is we're helping people prepare before there's a crisis," said Suzanne LaFollette-Black, AARP North Carolina associate state director for community outreach.

Among the most popular offerings has been "Powerful Tools for Caregivers," which has been presented to more than 10,000 people in North Carolina since 2001. The six-week course — with classes ranging from 90 to 180 minutes once a week — teaches caregivers to take time for themselves, even if it's as simple as going for a walk or having a sibling take a parent to a hair appointment.

Another seminar, "Prepare to Care," which began in 2008, helps people determine what they'll need in their new roles, how to assemble an action plan for providing care for the recipient and themselves, and how to access support services in the community. Both courses are free (although there may be fees for materials), and attendees do not have to be AARP members.

To demonstrate just how difficult the strain can be, Mary Cay Corr of Chapel Hill, a 74-year-old volunteer and former caregiver, often starts the Prepare to Care session with a series of questions. Which pharmacy does your mother use? Who are her doctors? Where is her marriage license? What are her Internet passwords? Soon audience members are stumped and recognize the need to get organized.

Next: You can't juggle them all. »

Later Corr asks for a volunteer. She throws that person a ball that represents a caregiver task to be managed each day. Then she lobs increasingly larger balls to be held.

Soon she is tossing a beach ball — yet one more responsibility for someone whose arms are already full. Eventually, the volunteer drops everything, creating a sense of levity for the presentation but delivering a message the audience doesn't forget: "It's to prove to them they can't do it themselves," she said.

Mandy Carter, a 63-year-old Durham resident who has worked to ensure that a graying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has the support and resources it needs, said participating in seminar panels with other caregivers can be empowering. "[We] looked at each other and said, 'I didn't know you were doing this, too.' "

Swezey's mother, Mary, died in 2010 at age 88 after moving from California and living with her daughter for three years. Swezey called caring for her the most challenging — and rewarding — experience of her life.

Because of that, Swezey will embark this month on a planned 3,000-mile walk across the country — starting in Wrightsville Beach and ending in Cambria, Calif., where her parents are buried — through 12 states. She hopes to raise $180,000 for charities, collect 6,000 "likes" on Facebook and heighten awareness for caregiving relief and support. The walk, which she calls SOAR (Seniors Obtaining Assistance and Resources) Feat 2012, will provide money to charities that assist with prescription drug copayments, low-income meal programs and respite services for caregivers.

When she tells others about the trek, everybody has a story about aging and caregiving.

"I'm not the only person who's gone through this," Swezey said.

Information on course offerings is available online at the AARP North Carolina website or by calling 1-866-389-5650 toll-free.

Also of interest: Afraid to tell your boss you're a caregiver?

Mike Gruss is a reporter living in Norfolk, Va.

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