Coping with burden of care

Classes teach unpaid caregivers that aiding others often starts with looking after yourself

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



Training for unpaid caregivers

Powerful Tools for Caregivers, a six-week class for unpaid caregivers.

When: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 17-Nov. 21.

Where: Southwest Washington Agency on Aging and Disabilities; 201 N.E. 73rd St., Vancouver.

Registration: 360-694-8144; 888-637-6060

Cost: Free to any unpaid caregiver in Clark, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Skamania and Klickitat counties.

American Red Cross Family Caregiving, a direct-skills class for caregivers

When: 5-9 p.m. Sept. 27

Where: Southwest Washington Chapter of the American Red Cross

3114 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver

Registration: 503-528-5614

Cost: $40

Families Caring for Elders: Navigating Life’s Challenges Together presentation

When: 6:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m. Sept. 20

Where: Providence Cancer Center Auditorium, 4805 N.E. Glisan, Portland.

Registration: http://aarp.cvent... or 877-926-8300

Vancouver resident Virg Birdsall used to wake up at 5 each morning to go to the gym. When his wife’s mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease caused her to begin to wander a year ago, Birdsall had to give up that ritual in order to be with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I am a very physical person,” said Birdsall, 83. “I like to do a lot of physical things. I had stopped doing that.”

Earlier this summer, Birdsall attended a cost-free program for unpaid caregivers that helped him to recover his daily exercise routine.

Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a six-week class offered at Vancouver’s Southwest Agency on Aging and Disabilities. The class centers on preserving and in some cases, reclaiming, the health and wellbeing of the caregiver.

“Caregivers just totally neglect themselves because they’re so wrapped up in taking care of their loved one that they don’t take care of themselves,” said Shanti Potts, a Powerful Tools class leader from Vancouver.

The stress of family caregiving increases caregivers’ risk of depression and premature death, according to research. One 2004 study by the University of California’s Department of Psychiatry found family caregiving can take as much as 10 years from a caregiver’s life.

The Powerful Tools class gives participants a confidential venue where they can talk about their stress, guilt, sadness, frustration and other emotions they might not feel comfortable sharing with someone who hasn’t experienced caregiving. Class leaders also provide information on resources available to caregivers, as well as how to manage stress, improve communication, manage often conflicted emotions and set goals to improve the caregiver’s health.

“You have mixed feelings (about being a caregiver),” said class participant Patti Correll of Vancouver. Correll manages care for her 89-year-old mother who lives in an assisted living center.

“You want to be there for that person and to help her enjoy the last years of her life, but at the same time, you might feel overwhelmed and resentful,” Correll said. “I’m tied down. It’s changing my life.”

Vancouver resident Jackie Chambers enrolled in the class this summer to cope with the mounting stress of caregiving.

“I knew I was really pushing my life the wrong way,” Chambers said. “It was getting to the point where it was using so much of my energy. You don’t get enough sleep; you don’t eat right. I was looking out for everybody else and not myself.”

During the past several years, Chambers has cared for two relatives and a friend, all in the last stages of life. She began caring for her 85-year-old mother, in the final stage of emphysema, in July 2010.

In the class, “you can say things that you’ve never said to anyone else because when someone is dying, it’s private,” Chambers said. “You can say anything to the other people in the class, things you can’t say to anyone else.”

In fact, all class participants are required to agree to keep all conversations confidential, and visitors are prohibited from the meetings.

The class is part of the statewide Family Caregiver Support Program, which is operated by the state’s 13 area agencies on aging, including the Southwest Washington agency. The program provides screening, a needs assessment, consultation, care planning, discounted respite care, referrals and other services to caregivers.

In spite of a climbing revenue deficit, the state Legislature allocated about $3.45 million in additional money to the program for the July 2011 to June 2012 fiscal year, opening the way for 1,500 more caregivers to receive the services. Proponents argued the program saves the state money in the long-run by reducing or eliminating the need to send a patient to a higher-cost nursing home.

There are about 854,000 unpaid caregivers in the state at any given time, according to an AARP study released earlier this year. That consists mostly of family caregivers who provide assistance to an elderly or disabled relative but also could be someone who cares for a friend or neighbor.

Unpaid caregivers in the state worked about 817 million hours in 2009, an estimated value of $10.6 billion, according to AARP. Without family caregivers, much of that cost would likely fall to the state. The demand for this unpaid workforce is expected to likely double in the next two decades in kind with the growth in the senior population.

Chambers said the Powerful Tools class can help caregivers from experiencing burnout and to set goals to improves their lives.

Like Birdsall, Chambers set a goal to exercise. After the class, she volunteered as a substitute Tai Chi teacher.

“That’s one of the things I learned would be really good for me,” she said. “The class taught me I need to do some good things for me.”

Although Birdsall still can’t go to the gym, he now has a ritual of exercising at home with a series of stretches and toning moves.

“This exercise routine has been very good for me mentally as well as physically,” Birdsall said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551;;;