Julie Hughes - Caring for the caregivers

When my husband, 82, was diagnosed with early dementia, I began a long and still ongoing search for care options for him. We’re doing quite well now and may continue on that path for many years.

But it seemed like a good idea to be prepared for the time if and when he might require care. Life is so unpredictable. As he points out, however, I may need care before he does. After all, my mother developed dementia in her late 80s. Who knows?

When I discovered the Caregiver Resources group at McMinnville’s Senior Center, I felt so fortunate.

Peggy Lutz, in her ninth decade, is an incredible woman. She was a Wave in World War II, a wife, mother and high school English teacher. When her husband of 50-plus years developed cancer, cardiovascular problems and vascular dementia, she was his only caregiver for three years. This job, her most difficult, was so demanding that it compromised her own health. For Peggy, a local caregiver support group in the town where she lived provided the respite and knowledge she needed to keep going.

For this reason, Peggy started the Caregiver Resources group when she moved to McMinnville four years ago.

A forum where caregivers discuss their concerns, problems and experiences is so helpful. People in this demanding situation need to know they are not alone — that others have surprisingly similar experiences in their lives. They often need help in problem solving.

On an ongoing basis, Peggy gathers information helpful to all caregivers and to those who may someday be thrust into the role. With compassion and care, she willingly shares her personal experiences.

The challenges of caregiving are varied. Some loved ones are young while others are very old; some are physically limited and others vigorous; some are quite sharp mentally while others have severe cognitive impairment. Every case is different. But a common thread runs through the caregiving experience: the needs of the caregiver as well as the needs of the loved one must be met.

Over time, caregivers may experience huge changes in their relationship with their loved one. So it is extremely important for them to have the opportunity to talk about problems and receive feedback in a safe, unthreatening, confidential environment. Increasing dependence, dramatic personality changes or the loss of physical abilities are just a few of the challenges discussed in the Tuesday meetings.

Often, once a diagnosis has been made, shock and even denial settle in. It is important to move beyond that stage by connecting with useful resources and seeking support, advice and information. The diagnosis could require caregiving on a relatively short-term basis following surgery or cancer treatment. Or the diagnosis could be an incurable, progressive disease or condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. In all cases, a support group is invaluable.

Most of us are not prepared to care for a spouse, parent, child or relative. We rarely plan on becoming caregivers, but sometimes we must. It is easy for the caregiver to feel overwhelmed, even hopeless, when the job appears to be never-ending. Such a bleak outlook is terribly stressful; consequently, patients sometimes outlive their caregivers.

Early on we learn that, in order to be able to take care of others, we must first take care of ourselves. Getting away, even for a few hours, needs to become part of caregivers’ schedules.

When we feel inadequate for our caregiving jobs and feel guilty about not doing enough, then it is time to take care of ourselves. It’s time to get help from a support group as well as from friends and family who can give us some respite.

To help both the caregiver and the loved one, care options to consider include in-home care, foster home care, assisted living and memory care. Facilities, prices and staffing all vary. If finances are a major consideration, all the research into alternatives can become disheartening, but it’s important to have a plan in place, maybe even Plan B and Plan C.

Decisions made at the time of a crisis may not result in the best solution. Informed decisions are decisions made after sifting through lots of information, so potential caregivers need to do their homework.

A great place to start is the Caregiver Resources group.

Caregiver Resources
When: 2 to 3:30 p.m. each Tuesday
Where: McMinnville Senior Center, 2250 NE McDaniel Lane.
Information: Peggy Lutz, 503-883-9297

Guest writer Julie Hughes taught elementary school, lived in Fiji as a Peace Corps volunteer and has traveled extensively. She is a Master Gardener and lives in McMinnville with her husband, Don, and their dog. Other interests include reading, hiking, yoga, exercising and knitting.

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