Care for self is essential to care for loved one, organizers say

Barbara Greer knew the unfortunate irony she was facing when she tried to form a caregiver support group in May: The people who most needed the group would be least able to attend it.

But somehow, people found responsible ways to leave their ailing loved ones and show up at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Forest Grove for a presentation on in-home caregivers.

“Forest Grove, per capita, is one of the highest concentrations of aging adults,” said Deborah Letourneau, who coordinates the Washington County Caregivers Support Program and who spoke to the group of 10 at Mt. Olive May 28.

As their health declines, many adults find help at assisted-living centers or adult foster homes. But many others are cared for by relatives — often because they can’t afford other options.

“Unpaid family caregivers are truly the backbone of long-term care in this country,” said Letourneau.

Nationwide studies that have found 80 percent of in-home care for seniors and people with disabilities comes from unpaid family members. It’s a silent workforce of 65 million Americans, many of whom don’t label themselves “caregivers,” but simply consider themselves “a good daughter or son or wife or grandmother or what-have-you,” Letourneau said.

Caregiving is a struggle for balance between selflessness and self-care, said Greer, who cared for her mother and brother for four-and-a-half years. “It’s a time-consuming, loving relationship.”

Greer partnered with fellow Mt. Olive Lutheran Church members Anita Eller and LaVonne Dugan to organize the presentation by Letourneau and Parish Nurse Sandy Madsen.

Eller, Greer’s neighbor, said exhaustion — physical and emotional — plagues most caregivers.

“Lifting people is physically exhausting,” she said. “A lot of caregivers are aging themselves.”

Emotionally, Madsen said, difficult decisions such as taking away car keys, hiring extra help or moving someone to an assisted-living facility can create conflict within families and spark guilt or anxiety in caregivers.

“They go and go with that 24/7 responsibility, but wearing out and burning out doesn’t serve either of you well,” she said.

That’s why Greer plans to continue reaching out to other caregivers in Forest Grove through a faith-based support group starting in late September. So far, she knows of at least 15 people who plan to attend.

In addition, if all goes as planned, Forest Grove will host a free, six-week Powerful Tools for Caregivers (PTC) course for up to 16 caregivers in January.

Taught by Letourneau, Madsen and others, the county-sponsored course helps caregivers learn how to communicate their needs, deal with difficult emotions, make tough caregiving decisions and develop self-care tools to reduce stress. Dugan, who cares for her husband, had taken the course and mentioned it to Greer, who says the need for caregivers — and caregiver support — is growing among the aging populations of Mt. Olive and other churches.

Greer plans to post fliers about the course in Forest Grove's library and senior center as the time approaches.

Besides the PTC course, Washington County offers an annual Family Caregiver Conference in November and occasional respite care.

Eller remembers being in the "sandwich generation" — caring for both ailing parents and young children when she wasn’t at her full-time job.

She couldn’t take her children out to restaurants or other places. “Having someone in your home limits where you can go and what you can do,” she said. “The rest of the family kind of loses out.”

Eventually, Eller’s mother-in-law moved to an assisted-living center. While that relieved some physical stress, Eller felt the center was more institutional and less personal.

It's hard to get more personal than when Eller's daughter gave birth at home and Eller carried her 45-minute-old grandson upstairs and placed him in his great-grandmother’s arms.

There are definitely high points in caregiving, Letourneau said: “It’s rewarding, but it can be unrelenting.”

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