CH@T: ‘Tools for Caregivers’ classes to help those who help

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Chatham County has one of the fastest-growing aging populations in North Carolina. That’s creating an entire population of children and extended family members who are being asked, or will be asked, to care for them. This week, we speak with Susan Hardy of Chatham County’s Council on Aging about resources available for caregivers and the COA’s upcoming “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” classes.

Hardy works as Human Services Team Leader and Caregiver Specialist, and her duties at the COA include connecting caregivers to services, facilitating two caregivers’ support groups and providing continuous learning and training for caregivers. In addition to serving as the Council’s Family Caregiver Specialist, Hardy is an Information and Options Counselor, coordinator for the Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP), and she is serving as chairman for the Care Services and Caregiving implementation group for Chatham’s Aging Plan. In March 2018, the North Carolina Association on Aging honored Hardy with its statewide Service Excellence Award. Hardy received both her undergraduate degree in special education and her masters of accounting from UNC-Chapel Hill.

We know that Chatham County has one of the most aged populations in the state. It would stand to reason Chatham has a large population of caregivers. Do you find that caregivers are prepared for that role, when it happens?

No one is ever prepared for the role of caregiver. Each patient/care-receiver is different in the way they respond to their diagnosis, both physically and mentally. The role of caregiver is especially difficult when the care-receiver has been diagnosed with dementia. Even though a name may be attached to the dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, Lewy body or vascular dementia, no two dementia patients exhibit the same set of behaviors or symptoms.

Why is the role of caregiver so critical?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, there were over 11 million Americans providing unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. These caregivers provided an estimated 15.3 billion hours valued at 257 billion dollars. Chatham County’s aging population will need caregivers. Rosalynn Carter said it first and best: “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

Can you share your thoughts about some of the major challenges and struggles caregivers face?

One of the main challenges a caregiver faces is finding time for themselves. With the tasks involved in caregiving and the day-to-day tasks of maintaining a household, there is very little time for the caregiver to get a break. Caregiving can be a 24/7 job. Caregivers often receive very few nights of uninterrupted sleep. The sleep patterns of care-receivers, especially those living with dementia, are often erratic and this leaves the caregiver deprived of sleep.

Communication is another challenge in caregiving. The care-receiver often has difficulty communicating his/her needs to the caregiver. And it goes the other way as well when the caregiver tries to communicate instructions to the care-receiver. Language and communication difficulties are especially challenging with people living with dementia.

Asking for help is a struggle caregivers face, too. Placing someone in a facility is usually not the first choice a caregiver would make. Most of us want to keep our loved ones at home for as long as possible. Oftentimes placing someone in a care facility is not an option anyway because of the cost involved. Even if a caregiver can afford to pay someone to help in the home, it is becoming more and more difficult to find someone qualified and/or available, especially in rural areas. And if an aide is available and qualified, caregivers struggle with letting someone else care for their loved one and it is difficult for them to let a stranger come into the home.

What support does the COA give caregivers?

We offer a variety of services and support for 24-hour caregivers. We offer two caregiver support groups. One group meets the third Monday of each month at 6:00pm at the Eastern Chatham Senior Center in Pittsboro. We are currently meeting on the porch but are looking at other options for when the weather gets cooler. We also meet on the fourth Monday of each month at 6:00pm virtually by invitation via Google Meet. In addition to support groups, we offer workshops, evidence-based classes and educational speakers as part of our support for caregivers.

We also receive some funding through the National Family Caregiver Support Program which can be used to pay for an in-home aide to give the caregiver a break. This funding is limited by household, which usually means we can provide an aide for three hours once a week.

There are many other services that the COA offers which are not specific to caregivers but are available to caregivers. These services, in addition to the specific caregiver offerings, can help to decrease some of the stress experienced by the caregiver. Examples of these services would be our incontinence supplies we can provide through our partnership with the Diaper Bank of NC, our assistive equipment loans, our meal options under our nutrition programs and the help our volunteers can provide regarding minor home repairs.

Share more about these six 90-minute classes you have set for September through November…

Powerful Tools for Caregivers is an evidenced-based educational program that consists of six classes. In these classes, caregivers develop a wealth of self-care tools to: reduce personal stress; change negative self-talk; communicate more effectively in challenging situations; recognize messages in their emotions and deal with difficult feelings; plus make tough caregiving decisions. Class participants also receive a copy of The Caregiver Helpbook developed specifically for the class.

What thoughts or advice would you have for those who think, “I’m not sure these classes will benefit me…”?

It is very important to keep our caregivers in the best health possible. Their loved ones are depending on them for their care. The Powerful Tools for Caregivers classes have been shown to have a significant positive impact on caregiver health. The Powerful Tools for Caregivers’ motto is “we want you to thrive not just survive”.


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