Class provides caregivers tools for coping with stress

The seven women around the table, ranging in age from their 30s to 60s, ticked off some of the signs that indicate their stress: They clam up, they’re sarcastic, they raise their voice, they can’t sleep, they get neck and head pain, they forget to eat, they eat too much.

They’re asked about the sources of that stress. They mention financial worries, their physical concerns, fears for their loved ones.

“The loss of a loved one’s health — their eventual death,” mentions Jill Fromelius, who cares for her 90-year-old mother with dementia in the Wilkins home they share.

“Lack of support — everybody talks, but nobody does,” says Sandra Knapper of Larimer, who assists a 96-year-old family friend on weekends.

Ms. Fromelius, Ms. Knapper and the others are attending “Powerful Tools for Caregivers,” a free six-week course offered by the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging and developed by researchers at Stanford University. It’s designed in two-hour increments to help them cope with struggles that are becoming only more common for adult sons, daughters and others in America.

People in their shoes were the focus last week of a comprehensive national study released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, calling for a national strategy to address the physical, mental and financial toll on some 17.7 million Americans caring for elderly relatives. At the same time, University of Pittsburgh researchers and the RAND Corp. announced a two-year project seeking to study and help such caregivers locally.

One of the goals of that local project is to put into wider community use some coping programs that have proved effective elsewhere, such as the course the county aging agency is now offering for small groups in fall and spring. Multiple research studies have shown caregivers suffer increased risk for depression, chronic illness and even death, as they are prone to be isolated and neglect their own needs while caring for others.

“Taking the class empowers them that they are important, too, and they shouldn’t lose their lives and themselves in the caregiving work that may go on for decades,” said Brenda Slagle, the class instructor and coordinator of the county agency’s caregiver support program. “They need to carve out time for their own medical appointments and carve out things that are fun for them.”

At each of the six weekly meetings, class participants are urged to come up with an “action plan” for the following week, vowing to undertake some type of activity that will give them pleasure. Even such modest goals are difficult, given their responsibilities.

“I totally failed,” 66-year-old Dee Pamplin of Swissvale admits to the others.

She had hoped just to take walks a couple of times during the week for relief from obligations inside the home to her mother after a day of work.

“I was tired. I was not motivated to do it after cooking,” she said.

Others in class pipe up with suggestions: Could she try preparing meals ahead of time in a crockpot? Was it possible to package leftovers to free up her time for walking? Could a stroll be scheduled at a different time of day, when she was fresher?

“I would say, find a way to reward yourself,” Ms. Slagle urges Ms. Pamplin. “Plan for a way to get a reward after walking. … You’re here to help yourself.”

She tells the class that stress can’t be eliminated, but it can be managed, if caregivers take the right steps on their own behalf. That includes asking others for help, focusing on positives instead of negatives, taking small breaks whenever possible for things that bring pleasure, such as listening to music, admiring nature, enjoying a cup of tea.

One woman says she tries to turn any errand into an interlude of respite by listening in the car to a song she enjoys. Another tries to pause on her front porch to focus for a moment on the scenery or wildlife.

Such approaches don’t just benefit the caregivers, Ms. Slagle emphasizes.

“The way you feel affects the person you’re caring for,” she says.

Ms. Knapper said in an interview that she took the class because too often she feels “trapped” when she’s with the family friend she helps, and she knows that’s not good for either of them.

“I feel like I’m losing me,” she said, but she senses already that the class is giving her tools to overcome that.

She spelled out an action plan for the next week that called for 30 minutes of exercise at least three times.

“I feel that’s a win-win situation,” Ms. Knapper said, for her own physical and mental well-being and the spinoff benefits for the woman she helps.

Advance registration can be made for the aging agency’s next caregiving class in the spring, offered at its South Side office, by calling 412-350-4996. The agency also offers other programs, including financial assistance, to individuals caring for elderly relatives if they meet eligibility criteria; for more information on those, call 412-350-5460.

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.

First Published September 19, 2016 12:11 AM


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