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North Hills Monthly

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

Jan 01, 2018 02:03PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Hope Grows holding an aromatherapy session with caregivers at the Celebrating You Event.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, there were more than 43.5 million unpaid caregivers in this country in 2015. Contrary to what some believe about caregiving, one does not need to provide round-the-clock medical care to a family member or a loved one to be a caregiver.

If you run errands for a loved one on weekends, you are a caregiver. If you often bring dinner to your shut-in grandfather, you are a caregiver. If you call a relative to check in on him or her regularly, you are a caregiver.

Caregivers, whether formal or informal, are an essential part of their loved ones’ lives. However, caregivers often do not recognize that they, too, need support, whether that is respite from their daily caregiving duties or just a safe space to talk with other caregivers facing the same issues.

Fortunately, many resources exist for caregivers in Allegheny County.

One such organization is Hope Grows, a nonprofit based in Moon Township whose mission is to inspire hope through nature, while empowering caregivers to seek wellness of mind, body and spirit. Founder Lisa Story established the organization in 2010 following the death of her father. She found solace in nature and wanted to bring similar opportunities to caregivers.

Hope Grows encompasses four areas of focus including mental health counseling and peer and education support. Under this umbrella, Hope Grows offers a phone check-in program called Think Caregiver, offered at no cost.

“It is a place for caregivers to talk, to tell their stories, and for us to check in and see how they are doing. It helps restore balance and brings support and resources right at their fingertips without leaving home,” said Story, adding that they also have an online support component with self-care suggestions. Within one year, 220 caregivers have joined.

Another component is therapeutic respite, which encompasses several programs that enable caregivers to get a short break with positive and mindful activity. “One program is Take a Break in the Dirt, an adaptive gardening program for children with disabilities, which gives the caregiver a break on the weekends,” said Story.

Hope Grows also offers education and training for professionals, as well as on-site visits to facilities to help with stress management, family mediation and more.

Brenda Slagle is the coordinator of the Family Caregiver Support Program with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Area Agency on Aging. The program provides support for caregivers who are taking care of loved ones in the home, including putting together different resources for caregivers.

Currently, there are 375 caregivers in the program, all of whom are assigned a care manager. There are various eligibility criteria, though Slagle said it is a misconception that they only help people who are indigent. She explained, “Some programs don’t have income guidelines; that is why it is best to call the agency and we can match the best program for the family once we find out their specific needs.”

Slagle added that caregiver support includes free training to teach caregiver skills as well as a resource guide to find lists of support groups or respite opportunities in a caregiver’s location. “The whole idea of respite is giving the caregiver a break so they can get rejuvenated, refreshed, and keep doing what they’re doing,” she said.

AgeWell Pittsburgh, which is based in Squirrel Hill, is a cooperative agency that brings information and services to those in need, including caregiver support groups that help with coping mechanisms or other advice. Despite all of the help that is available, there are several reasons why caregivers often do not seek support. 

Maxine Horn, information and referral specialist at AgeWell, explained, “It is because they don’t know that this kind of support is out there; they assume incorrectly that there would be too much money involved to seek this kind of help. They mistakenly think that they can handle everything and that going someplace is a sign of weakness.”

Slagle agreed, adding, “They don’t identify themselves as caregivers.Rather, those providing care for family members may think that caregiving is what comes with the territory of being a spouse or daughter."

When caregivers don’t take care of themselves, however, they may find it harder to take care of someone else. “Caregiving is a very strong stress and anxiety producer, and it can exacerbate already underlying physical health problems that the caregiver might have,” said Horn.

“We know caregiving impacts the caregiver physically, mentally, emotionally and financially,” added Slagle. “They tend to be isolated and not focus on their own needs but on the needs of the person that they’re caring for. 

“This can lead to bad lifestyle behaviors, like an increase in smoking, a decrease in exercise, unhealthy eating, and not enough sleep,” she continued. “That, combined, with the isolation, really puts a toll on their relationships.”

“The main reason a caregiver should seek support is so that they don’t become a statistic themselves,” said Story. “A large percentage of caregivers end up with chronic illnesses because of strain and stress, and no one should pay this price.”